Under the soothing shade near the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, men share cigarettes, releasing wisps of smoke into conversation. Surprisingly, even a sports officer quietly enjoys a smoke by the hall. 

The age-old habit of smoking within stadiums persists, with many unable to break free, despite knowing the health consequences and the impact of second-hand smoke.

“I am aware that smoking is bad, because it impacts both my health and those around me, yet if I do not smoke, I feel uneasy. It’s as if there’s a sour taste in my mouth. I can’t quite explain it, but when I smoke, it brings me a sense of relief,” a sports official tells The Post on condition of anonymity. 

He says that when he smokes, he conscientiously positions himself far away from others to ensure it doesn’t affect anyone.

Yet, smoking and distributing various cigarettes within athletes’ residences, training venues, competition and spectator areas, as well as stadium compounds, will soon be prohibited as the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport recently issued guidelines for enforcing a strict “tobacco-free sports” policy.

This directive encourages everyone involved in sports to remove any images linked to smoking, distributing cigarettes or promoting tobacco.

Minister Hang Chuon Naron introduced guidelines for the “tobacco-free sports” campaign on December 27, 2023, and made them available for wide distribution January 4.

Healthy competitions ahead

The “tobacco-free sports” guidelines are being implemented by the ministry in response to the widespread impact of tobacco products on both consumers and those in close proximity.

The nicotine and chemicals in tobacco smoke have detrimental effects on the body, disrupting oxygen intake and adversely affecting circulation, lungs, muscles, joints and the brain.

The seriousness of this impact prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to endorse the “tobacco-free sports” guidelines in 1988, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO). This idea has become integral to the culture of sports competitions and endures to the present day.

Despite these guidelines, smoking, distributing cigarettes and promoting tobacco persist in athletes’ residences, training venues, competition grounds, arenas and stadiums. 

Some athletes openly smoke during events, reflecting a portion of athletes, coaches and officials who are smokers. Additionally, a number of spectators also engage in smoking.

In response to these actions, the ministry advocates for the immediate implementation of the “tobacco-free sports” guidelines. 

“We aim to foster a tobacco-free sports culture, enhancing competitive capabilities to the fullest while preventing health issues for athletes, organisers and spectators due to tobacco product use,” the ministry says.

Clearing the air

The ministry has outlined seven key points for everyone involved to follow with the introduction of guidelines to implement the “tobacco-free sports” policy.

First, use stickers or labels to signify a no-smoking policy in athletes’ residences, training venues, competition sites, spectator areas and stadiums.

Second, strictly ban tobacco products, e-cigarettes, or HTPs in these areas.

Third, individuals violating these instructions must cooperate with authorities to promptly address the issue.

Fourth, prohibit the sale, distribution and advertising of tobacco products in any form within these specified locations.

Fifth, disallow any sponsorship from producers and distributors of these products for any purpose.

Sixth, refrain from cooperation or providing venue access for programmes initiated by companies affiliated with tobacco products.

The seventh point is for all sports federations and sport clubs to incorporate the “tobacco-free sports” guidelines into their regulations.

“Leaders of relevant institutions and local authorities, along with sports federation presidents, clubs, and venue heads, must spread the ‘tobacco-free sports’ guidelines and actively follow them with a heightened sense of responsibility,” Chuon Naron urges.

“We’ve already shared this with relevant units, especially the national sports federation. It’s our contribution to global health concerns, showing we care about our athletes’ well-being and support tobacco-free sports. Workshops will continue to spread these guidelines.” says Bun Sok, head of the Directorate-General of Sports and president of the National Sports Training Centre.

Endurance over smoke

Nou Chamroeun, secretary-general of the Cambodian Cycling Federation, wholeheartedly supports the guidelines as they contribute to a healthier sporting environment by eliminating cigarette smoke and scattered filters at competition venues.

“Before, our no-smoking rule only applied to the national team. In cycling, patience is crucial, especially in enduring fatigue. Smoking reduces our strength, causing quick fatigue, hindering our ability to endure rigorous training and excel in competitions. Hence, our athletes’ technical proficiency can’t reach optimal levels,” Chamroeun says.

“Now, with the ministry providing guidelines, we’ll extend the ‘tobacco-free sports’ implementation to clubs under the federation and other stakeholders, making our sport safer, healthier and moving forward together,” he says.

Likewise, Ma Vyro, a former athlete and professional marathon runner for over 10 years, praises the adoption of guidelines in Cambodia. He notes that smoking hampers performance in both training and competitions.

“I’ve seen a considerable amount of smoking in both training sessions and competition grounds. I feel frustrated but can’t stop them because it’s their right, so I am pleased and fully support the implementation of the ‘tobacco-free sports’ guidelines,” says Vyro, who won gold medals and numerous trophies in local competitions.

“We know that alcohol damages the liver, and smoking damages the lungs. For athletes, strong and healthy lungs are crucial, particularly in running. Weak lungs hinder endurance in running. Therefore, smoking is not good for our athletes. 

“Athletes, especially those in the national team, should quit smoking if they aspire to enhance their capabilities to be better,” he says.