Writer’s biggest battle is to stop smoking

James Fergusson found smoking went hand in hand with his work overseas, such as investigating the role of al-Qaida in Somalia. Picture: Neil Hanna
James Fergusson found smoking went hand in hand with his work overseas, such as investigating the role of al-Qaida in Somalia. Picture: Neil Hanna
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HE’S been to some of the toughest places in the world but James Fergusson insists giving up the cigarettes has been his most difficult assignment yet.

The author and journalist has made a career from covering current affairs in war-torn countries including Bosnia, documenting the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and, more recently, investigating the role of al-Qaida in Somalia.

Faced with more than your average share of life and death experiences at work, the award-winning writer admits to being far more blasé about the most prolific killer he regularly encountered. In fact, he befriended these deadly characters for years.

Cigarettes have been the trusty companion of James throughout his travels, a stress relief and social leveller, he would typically smoke between ten a 20 a day – especially while working on projects overseas.

Now 47, and a dad-of four, James decided it was time to pack in the costly habit for good after a few failed attempts to quit the addictive habit.

He enlisted the help of his local pharmacist, Lindsay and Gilmour on Elm Row, enrolling on a programme of nicotine patches to help fight the cravings. He has now been smokefree for 12 weeks, although he freely admits it is still a daily challenge that will be increasingly tough when he embarks on his next planned excursion to Yemen.

“I’ve been smoking forever really. I started as a teenager and been smoking ever since. I have also given up before now, once for two years, and can’t even remember why I started again.

“There’s a risk involved in smoking cigarettes and everyone knows it nowadays. I wonder if the fact that I’d smoke is because it’s taking a risk, something I’ve always done as a writer.”

James went to Afghanistan in 1996 after landing a job trying to get an interview with hot new couple of the time, Imran Khan and Jemima Goldsmith, for the Daily Express. His celebrity pursuit took him to neighbouring Pakistan where he quickly became more interested in the elections taking place and started reporting on those instead.

“It was right in the middle of the Taliban’s rise. They had taken Kabul and they were moving onto the north. It was just a very exciting story and I was determined to get over there.

“I’m from that kind of generation. The mujahideen were fighting the Russians all the way through the 1980s when I was a teenager and it always struck me as being the most exciting thing. It was in James Bond films and was very much the conflict of the moment. Aged 15, I thought ‘that looks exciting, I want to go there’ and I got my chance 22 years later.”

James started freelancing there and made the most of the lack of fellow western journalists, eventually writing three books on his experiences, including one that became the British military’s book of the year. He would typically go to the country for several week spells, engaging with locals including the Taliban.

“It was not a place to hang about really. You’d go there, get your job done and get back out again. It’s different now but when I first started going there you wouldn’t see another western face.

“I remember once this 12-year-old stopped our taxi, put a gun through the window and I thought ‘Christ we’re for it now’. He just asked if anyone had a cigarette. I did but weirdly we all shook our heads and said no. I wasn’t going to give him one.”

When James decided it was time to quit, he went for the initial 15-minute consultation before deciding on which quitting aids would best suit his needs. He used nicotine patches, supplemented by the odd lozenge, and would drop in for weekly catch-ups at the pharmacy to discuss how he was doing and make any alterations to his personalised course. James said he instantly felt the health benefits and was amazed at how easy it was to access the support services through Community Pharmacy Scotland.

“I’d recommend it to anybody, it’s really good as you don’t need an appointment, you just go in and ask. Somehow it’s not too intrusive and keeps you on track. It’s faster than going to your GP and gives you all the free help you need.”

Pharmacist Caroline Barnes, who is helping James to quit, said his tale was an inspiration to others.

She said: “We tend to find once people sign up, it does work and James is a great example of this. He was buying patches every week and spending as much money on them as he was smoking so to know there is this free service would surely be an incentive for many people to at least have a go.

“Quitting smoking is really difficult, for many people it will be the hardest thing they do. We are keen to get the word out there that we’re here and people don’t have to do it on their own.

“I encourage people at every step, even if they’re not doing very well, I can find something to be positive about. The fact that they’ve come in is a great place to start.”


Free support to stop smoking is available across the Lothians.

You can get information about your local stop smoking services from Smokeline on 0800 84 84 84, or visit www.canstopsmoking.com where you can also chat online with a trained adviser.

NHS stop smoking services are available throughout the Lothians. Trained, friendly advisers will help you by giving expert advice and practical support.

This can be in a group with other people who are also trying to give up smoking, or as one-to-one support. Advisers can help with choosing medication such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), varenicline (Champix) or bupropion (Zyban).

You can also access NHS support at any community pharmacy with weekly one-to-one support.

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