The number of tobacco users is increasing and in 2008 the World Health Organization estimated that about 5.4 million people die every year from illnesses related to smoking. Many developed countries have increased the taxes on tobacco, with the aim of reducing the number of smokers.
When I was in France recently, I discovered it was common for people to ask others they met on the street for a cigarette. After making some inquiries I discovered that many smokers did this because the price of cigarettes had risen and become very high, and while many people claimed they were trying to give up smoking, they’d simply stopped buying them.
Here in Cambodia, according to a survey by the Cambodian National Institute of Statistics last month, 81 percent of those surveyed said they would support the government if it raised taxes on tobacco. The number of adults who smoke fell from 48 percent in 2006 to 42.5 percent in 2011, but that translates as almost 2 million smokers in Cambodia, with the total expenditure on tobacco estimated to be about US$100 million. However, there is no data on the numbers of Cambodians who have died from illnesses related to smoking.
There have been some pushes to cut back on smoking in the Kingdom through a few laws and education programmes. Last year the government issued a sub-degree to force cigarette manufacturers to print health warnings on packs and recently the government banned all civil servants from smoking in the work place – at all municipality halls, ministries and provincial departments. The Ministry of Interior started this ban on smoking in provincial government offices in 2009.
The deadline to end all kinds of tobacco advertising is early August. It is widely recognised that smoking damages the health and can lead to death. In recent years, the Cambodian government has encouraged people to stop smoking, quite the opposite to the 1980s and ’90s when the authorities seemed to encourage the consumption of cigarettes by allowing tobacco companies to advertise and push people to test tobacco products.
In the past, it was a tradition for a bride to offer a cigarette to the groom on the day of their wedding and to take a photo of this as souvenir. After the wedding meal, guests were offered cigarettes on the tables – even though many of them didn’t smoke. Monks would also be given gifts of cigarettes, which they would smoke while preaching or talking to lay people.
Both of these traditions seem to be dying out. A few years ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared he would quit smoking after one of his grandchildren complained about the smell on his clothes. Since then, the premier does not smoke in the public. While some fathers used to smoke inside their houses, now they smoke outside to save their family members from inhaling second-hand smoke.
Many tourists coming to the capital will see groups of cyclo riders wearing green shirts bearing a smoke free zone logo. This campaign is not only to show the cyclo drivers are non-smokers, but it is also a good way to campaign against smoking.
With the law and general behaviour towards smoking changing for the better in Cambodia, it is appropriate that tomorrow, which is World No Tobacco Day, Health Minister Mam Bunheng will receive an award from the World Health Organization in recognition of his work on tobacco control in the Kingdom.
Unfortunately, smoking remains a threat to public health in Cambodia as more and more people are smoking in-doors in places such as nightclubs, karaoke clubs, bars and restaurants or in other public places like bus stations, markets and entertainment venues. Smoking not only harms their health, but also harms the people around them.
Many motodop riders also seem to be heavy smokers, revealing nicotine-stained smiles to their passengers. I have occasionally seen people, both Cambodians and expats, smoking inside the Ministry of Health. When I asked some friends who are doctors why they smoke, they responded “Puth krou kom trap, chbab krou sem york”, which translates as, “Don’t follow teacher’s behaviour, but accept teacher’s theory”. Could this teacher’s behaviour be changed?
From my observations, long-time smokers tend to give up the habit because they have become aware of the dangers and have received some health education – they are afraid of getting sick and spending a lot of money on their health. But young people are more likely to start smoking and to smoke like their peers at entertainment venues.
Therefore, the government should increase the taxes on tobacco and bring in a law banning smoking indoors at public venues. Thailand and many neighbouring countries have introduced these types of laws already, and in many countries smoking is banned in public places. It’s time Cambodia caught up.
Tong Soprach is a columnist for The Phnom Penh Post Khmer edition. He writes on health and social issues. He is also a public health consultant.