When Gina Lorenzo started smoking around age 14, cigarettes cost 55 cents a pack — and she was spending anywhere from $16 to $20 a month on Salem 100’s, which was her mom’s brand.

“Both of my parents smoked — mom smoked cigarettes and dad smoked cigars,” recalled Lorenzo, 55, of Simi Valley.

By the time Lorenzo was 20, she really wanted to kick the habit. So she tried every method she could find, including hypnosis, the nicotine patch and nicotine gum — and even electric shock therapy.

“You name it, I tried it,” Lorenzo remembered. “Unfortunately, nothing worked.”

“I realized that I was a slave to nicotine and would essentially be worthless in a crisis if I didn’t have cigarettes. After this I tried even harder to quit, but still couldn’t. I never even could go one full day without a cigarette. It was devastating and made me feel weak and pathetic.” Gina Lorenzo of Simi Valley, who started smoking as a teen but has been smoke free for 28 years

She even watched her father die of lung cancer.

“Some of his last words to me were, ‘I’m so sad that you’ll never quit smoking,’ ” Lorenzo said. “He was in a heavy morphine haze at the time, but those words stuck with me.”

In October of 1987, Lorenzo experienced the Whittier Narrows earthquake, a 5.9 magnitude temblor that was felt throughout Southern California and southern Nevada.

Her first thought was: “What would I do if I couldn’t buy cigarettes because of an earthquake?”

“That thought rattled me because I realized that I was a slave to nicotine and would essentially be worthless in a crisis if I didn’t have cigarettes,” Lorenzo said. “After this I tried even harder to quit, but still couldn’t. I never even could go one full day without a cigarette. It was devastating and made me feel weak and pathetic.”

About a year later, in the fall of 1988, Lorenzo was sitting on the couch with her husband — who also smoked — watching the Seoul Summer Olympics.

She told her husband that if she kept smoking, she’d never be able to compete in the Olympics.

“Which was a really weird thing to say since I never had any intention of competing in the Olympics,” Lorenzo said.

But the statement brought her to a profound realization: Her brain, unconsciously, was going through every scenario it could to give her reasons to quit.

“Wanting to quit was on my mind 24/7. Cigarettes were like my friends. They had been with me through my entire adolescence, and giving them up felt traumatic,” Lorenzo said, “but at the same time, cigarettes were about $3.50 a pack, and I thought that was a ridiculous price to pay to kill yourself. And I was at about a pack and a half a day at this point.”

Prop 56: Cigarette tax hikes fees $2 per pack

Smokers in Ventura County might be forced to cut down or quit the nicotine habit since the passing of Proposition 56, which raised the cigarette tax by $2 per pack on April 1 in California.

The same increase applies to other tobacco products and electronic cigarettes with nicotine, and the revenue from this tax will be used primarily to help augment spending on health care for low-income Californians.

While the thought of kicking this addiction might be daunting for cigarette smokers, there are numerous benefits, including the obvious: Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health, according to the surgeon general.

And, of course, Ventura County smokers can save quite a bit of money by cutting back or quitting the habit for good. The bottom line is that the cigarette fee hike will most likely result in a drop in the number of smokers countywide.

“There’s a drop in cigarette smoking related to higher prices because that is, for many people, the final straw,” said Daniel Takeda of Simi Valley, a medical doctor with Adventist Health Physicians Network who specializes in family medicine.

Raising the price of tobacco products has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to reduce consumption, said Amanda L. Graham, Ph.D., a research investigator with the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Truth Initiative.

“Prices going up may be a great motivator to try to quit smoking,” Graham said. “Having extra money not spent on cigarettes can inspire new ways to reward yourself for staying smoke-free, such as treating yourself to a nice meal, movie tickets, getting your car or home cleaned, or putting it toward something you’ve always wanted.”

The dangers of nicotine 

According to a California Health Interview Survey conducted in 2015, 12.7 percent of Ventura County adults are current smokers, which is above the Healthy People 2020 target of 12 percent.

“The number of adult smokers has remained basically the same, no significant change up or down,” said Selfa Saucedo, staff and services manager at Ventura County Public Health. “What we have seen is a dramatic increase in teen use of electronic cigarettes.” 

Saucedo noted that a California Healthy Kids Survey found that in 2014, the number of 11th graders in Ventura County who reported current electronic cigarette use was higher — 20 percent versus the current conventional cigarette use of 10 percent.

Nevertheless, no matter how a person consumes nicotine, the potential dangers remain the same.

According to Quit Tobacco, an online resource at UCanQuit2.org, nicotine has the potential to harm many parts of the body.

For instance, nicotine can affect the brain by disrupting normal neurotransmitter activity, and can affect the eyes by reducing the ability to see at night. In the heart and arteries, nicotine raises the heart rate and blood pressure when it stimulates the release of adrenaline. When it comes to the reproductive system, nicotine prohibits proper blood circulation and is a leading cause of impotence for men under 40, and also increases the risk of infertility and miscarriage.

The dangers of cigarettes are also clearly written on every pack with warnings by the surgeon general, including that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema.

Fortunately, when it comes to teen smokers throughout the United States, the youth smoking rate is now a record low of 6 percent after dropping a full percentage point in just one year, Graham said.

The decline in youth smoking may be attributed to a combination of policy changes, she said, including clean indoor air laws prohibiting smoking in a variety of public and private places.

Additional reasons include: “increased coverage of cessation resources covered by private insurance mandated through the Affordable Care Act, decreasing rates of youth and young adult uptake of tobacco, and increasingly prevalent social norms in the United States around the undesirability of smoking,” Graham said.

Cigarette costs equal a month’s rent in Ventura County

The amount of money that smokers can save when they quit or cut down depends partly on the brand they smoke. On the high end, for instance, one of the most expensive brands is American Spirit, which now costs around $9 per pack. Other brands, like Marlboro menthols, now cost around $7.88 per pack.

At Scandia Liquor in Ventura, several smokers tried to beat the April 1 fee hike on March 31 by purchasing approximately 21 cartons of cigarettes, according to a worker on site who asked to remain anonymous. A carton usually contains 10 packs, totaling about 200 cigarettes, while others contain 20 packs.

The typical smoker in California smokes about a pack per day, which is crudely estimated by some sources by using the excise taxes collected in California, noted Jared Barton, assistant professor of economics at California State University, Channel Islands, in Camarillo.

“At $6 per pack, that’s almost $2,200 dollars, which is easily a month’s rent or a mortgage payment without property taxes for a lot of Ventura County families,” Barton said. “Compared to the median household income in the county of about $77,000, that’s more than a week’s worth of earnings up in smoke.”

Smoking from a societal standpoint

From a societal standpoint, the only reason a person’s choice to smoke affects the rest of us in terms of health-care costs “is that most individuals do not directly incur more of their health-care costs,” Barton noted. 

“If they did, there would be little reason to be concerned in terms of social costs and benefits: Individuals would choose to trade off their current enjoyment with their future decline in health,” Barton said. “Thus, I would say the issue has less to do with decreasing consumption of cigarettes and more to do with the functioning of the U.S. health-care market.”

While Barton agrees that society can potentially decrease health problems by raising the costs of the commodity that causes it, “This is an incredibly paternalistic solution that ignores the reason for the external costs of smoking and other behaviors.”

People smoke — or drink soda, eat bacon, sit in recliners — because it is enjoyable, Barton said.

“It also has costs,” Barton said. “From a societal perspective, the only question is whether those costs are borne by the individual or by others.”

The reason that “society” has taken an interest in individual decisions to smoke — or drink water, eat vegetables or go for a hike — is that “society” taxes some people to pay for other people’s health care, Barton explained. 

“In the absence of this externalizing of health-care costs, there is no particular reason to worry about other people’s health problems that are a result of their actions: They are choosing them on their own,” Barton said.

Getting smokers to talk about their habit in general, however, is not easy. Fears of being shamed as well as possible increases to their health-care costs, such as premiums, are real concerns. For instance, smokers interviewed for this story did not want to be named and were therefore not included.

Smoking cessation resources

Quitting tobacco for most people is very difficult, but is doable, said Allison Barton, a health educator at Moorpark College, a tobacco-free campus that also bans chew, snuff and vaping. Ventura College is officially smoke and tobacco free as of June 1.

For smokers who want to kick the habit, Barton recommends calling the California Smoker’s Helpline at 800-NO-BUTTS or download quit smoking apps, such Smoke Free and Quit Smoking Now. Local residents can also email questions to callitquits@ventura.org.

“I suggest that they use every resource available to them, and if at first they don’t succeed, try, try again,” Barton said. “Most are successful after seven to eight attempts, learning a little more after each try.  It’s never too late, and always a good time to quit, but the sooner the better.”

Smokers can call the Ventura County Call It Quits program at 805-201-STOP for information on available classes.

“It is free and is conveniently scheduled throughout the county yearlong,” Saucedo said. “We can also help access nicotine replacement therapy products for those who need additional assistance.”

Graham added that smokers can find more answers to common questions about smoking and quitting at http://www.becomeanex.org/quitting-smoking-faq.php#

28 years without nicotine

On March 27 of 1989, Gina Lorenzo woke up and said, “I’m done.”

For the next month, every single day, she thought about cigarettes — but didn’t give in.

“I knew I would never go back,” Lorenzo said. “It’s still one of the proudest moments of my life, and that one accomplishment has led to many more because I knew that, if I could quit smoking, I could do almost anything.”

Today, Lorenzo is a professional singer and songwriter — a love that she was able to nourish when she quit smoking. She started putting the money she would’ve spent on cigarettes into a huge jar, and by the end of the first year she had over $1,800.

She continued to save money for the next few years, and eventually bought herself top recording gear with the $5,700 she would have spent on cigarettes.

“Some of the other positive changes I’ve experienced from quitting are, of course, better health,” Lorenzo said. “I always taught fitness classes and cycled, even as a smoker, but never really understood how great working out felt until I actually quit — I felt stronger mentally and physically.”

She believes the biggest positive outcome that came from quitting was the level of overall confidence that resulted from empowering herself.

“Ever since I quit, I truly believe that I can do anything I set my mind to — and I usually do,” she said.

Today, she doesn’t crave nicotine at all.

“However, I sometimes have nightmares that I go back to smoking and I wake up in a panic,” Lorenzo said. “That just shows you how hard it was for me to quit.”

Her advice for smokers who are having a tough time quitting: “Stop beating yourself up every time you have a failed attempt. Just realize that you are now one step closer to actually quitting, if that’s what you truly want. Someone who wants to quit will never stop trying, and that’s really what it takes — persistence, patience and desire.”