Law and Order star S. Epatha Merkerson talks about her advocacy for cancer and health problems associated with smoking

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American film, stage, and television actress S. Epatha Merkerson is a brave soul who has not only won a Golden Globe, an Emmy Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, she has also overcome her nicotine addiction.

Merkerson, who is known for her role as NYPD Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the long-running (1993 to 2010) NBC police procedural drama series Law & Order, is an active advocate against smoking and frequently speaks up on lung cancer research and awareness. 

The actress frequently discusses her 23-year addiction to cigarettes, which is finally ended in the early '90s after she could not breathe one morning. She talked to and discussed how she was an avid smoker and how deaths of her near and dear ones due to lung cancer made her realize the life threatening danger of smoking. 

“When I grew up smoking was cool. You know everybody smoked. I was a knucklehead, though. I actually didn't start smoking until I was in my 20s. Because I figured it was time for me to be cool,” the actress told the online magazine.

She also confessed that the actress tried quitting several times after she got older, but it was not possible for her to stop smoking just like that. “My cigs stayed on my nightstand. Before I put my feet on the floor in the morning I lit a cig. The heaviest I smoked was about 3 packs of cigarettes a day,” the diva admitted.

And bad news soon came after her sister Debbie was diagnosed with lung cancer, treatable though. Despite her sister’s diagnosis, the Merkerson continued to smoke. But one day, something happened that scared her to death. 

“I woke up and my analogy is it felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest. I could not breathe. And I kept breathing, I thought, this is so ridiculous,” she opened up and since then she has stopped smoking completely. 

Two of her close friends died due to lung cancer and it was devastating enough for the actress, who was a chain smoker. Her best friend, Yvette Hawkins, was diagnosed with the deadly disease and died within twenty days of the diagnosis.

“I'd never seen anyone die before, and I remember taking her clothes from the hospital and there was a cigarette in her pocket," Merkerson said. "It's one of the lasting images in my mind -- she never got to smoke that last cigarette."

“It's SO not cool to watch your friend die. And I watched two of my very best friends die.

“It's difficult. And when you know that that person died from something they may have been able to prevent it's even more sad,” said Merkerson sadly. 

But fortunately, this iconic actress, who is also an acting professor at City College of New York, totally quit the nasty habit of smoking after the deaths of her two close friends. And it was then that she started raising awareness against smoking and lung cancer and several other smoking related illnesses. 

Using her fame as a tool, Merkerson spread awareness about the risks of smoking, like cancer, heart disease, and several other health problems. She said: “Celebrity comes with responsibility. Sometimes people, because I'm on television, may listen to my personal story and take it to heart.” True that!!

Now, through her anti-smoking campaigns, she has been helping millions come out of their habit of smoking and it really seem to work. 

She was formerly married to her husband to Toussaint L. Jones, but they did not have any children.