Tobacco is the world’s leading cause of preventable death, killing nearly eight million individuals every year. It claims 1.6 million lives in the South-East Asia Region (SEAR) alone, which is also amongst the largest producers and consumers of tobacco products.
As reported by the World Health Organization in 2019, Vietnam has one of the highest numbers of smokers in the world, with as many as 15.6 million people spending VND31 trillion ($1.36 billion) on cigarettes every year. Notably, the country is among the top 15 in the world with the lowest tobacco prices.
Tin (not his real name) started smoking when he was still in the university, more or less six years ago. “I usually consume less than one pack a day back when I was still a student. I tried to quit, I can’t count the times I’ve told myself I have to stop smoking but every time I do it, I feel stronger cravings instead,” he shared.
Last year, during the peak of the global pandemic, the WHO released a statement confirming smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.
“COVID-19 is an infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. Smoking impairs lung function making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other diseases. Tobacco is also a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes which put people with these conditions at higher risk for developing severe illness when affected by COVID-19.”
Safe to say, the coronavirus pandemic is giving smokers more reasons to give up the habit, and it’s creating a unique window of opportunity to do so.
Even under normal circumstances, quitting is hard. Like drinking, overeating or any other bad habits, the process can be wearying. But with support from family members, peers, and even the government plus the fact that the world is facing a pandemic, it could become less impossible to do…if one chooses to.
“NO SMOKING” campaign
Earlier this week in Hanoi, the Health Ministry together with the WHO launched a campaign to encourage smoke-free restaurants and hotels.
Some 200 restaurants and hotels in Vietnam’s capital city have responded to the “NO SMOKING” campaign, committing to strictly observe the Law on Prevention and Control of Tobacco Harms.
There are nearly 40,000 deaths caused by smoking every year in Vietnam and 6,000 people died from secondhand smoke. WHO Representative in Vietnam Kidong Park is urging an end to “the deaths of these blameless victims” of passive smoking.
“WHO called upon you to begin this with implementing smoke-free restaurants and hotels, which include simple acts such as placing “No Smoking” signs at visible areas of hotels and restaurants,” he said.
Park also suggested that inspections from law enforcement units should be conducted more frequently to achieve better compliance.
In a report by Hanoi Times, Dr. Luong Ngoc Khue, head of the Medical Examination and Treatment Management Department under the Ministry of Health and director of the Vietnam Tobacco Control Fund fund stressed that building a smoke-free tourism environment is an effective way to ensure the rights of non-smokers to breathe fresh air.
“It also helps reduce the risks of illnesses caused by exposure to tobacco smoke for the tourism sector's personnel and tourists, reduce direct and indirect medical costs for examinations and treatment of diseases related to smoking,” he added.
A 2020 report by the Vietnam Tobacco Control Fund says the rate of secondhand smoking in restaurants and hotels, or in any public space, remains high. Data show that 80% of customers are exposed to smoking in restaurants and 65% in hotels.
Also present in the campaign launch event was Do Hong Xoan, deputy head of the Vietnam Tourism Association and Chairwoman of the Vietnam Hotel Association, who also highlighted the significance of this campaign not only for the restaurants and hotels but also for the community.
Xoan added that smoke-free environments, including restaurants and hotels, will build an image of a professional, civilized, and fresh environment for tourists and beneficial for the health of hospitality staff and customers. Such an environment will surely attract more domestic and international tourists.
“NO SMOKING” signs were put up and made visible at the Hilton Hanoi Opera at 1 Le Thanh Tong Street and San Fu Lou-Cantonese Kitchen at 6 Phan Chu Trinh Street.
While the capital Hanoi is in the process of strictly imposing rules on smoking in public, Ho Chi Minh City is already reaping the benefits of the same strict rules.
Earlier this year, Dr. Phan Thị Hải, deputy head of the Tobacco Harm Prevention Fund, said at a conference that the smoking rate among men in HCMC fell to 44.5% in 2020 from 46.7% in 2017. The rate of exposure to secondhand smoke also fell at public sites such as restaurants, state offices and health facilities.
According to the THPF data, staff at 1,560 state offices, 3,778 kindergarten schools, 3,577 primary schools, 2,502 secondary schools and 1,010 high schools have carried out regulations on banning smoking.
Additionally, more than 200 transport companies have banned staff from smoking at the workplace and in coaches.
Vapes and its stylish and smaller version, pod vapes, are everywhere in the country. From high school students hiding it as lipstick to young professionals casually placing it across their devices, these “risk-free” and cheaper alternatives to smoking are surely creating a buzz.
But what is it really? A vape is an electronic cigarette device that simulates tobacco smoking. It consists of an atomizer, a power source such as a battery, and a container such as a cartridge or a tank. Instead of smoke, the user inhales the vapor. That’s why if you’re using vape, it’s technically not smoking, but “vaping”.
There are a lot of people who vape non-nicotine products, thinking it’s healthier. Truth it, it’s not, medical experts say. And policymakers want it banned.
Even if Vietnam has seen certain achievements made in tobacco harm prevention and control, challenges continue to emerge, including the increasing trend of smoking e-cigarettes, Associate Professor and Dr. Luong Ngoc Khue has said.
Tin is using the traditional cigarettes but his friends have ‘upgraded’ to using vapes and pods. “My friends tell me to upgrade to vaping, saying it’s more classy and less dangerous and it also smells good, but I have not switched yet. I just don’t find it very different from the usual cigarette I use.”
“The use of e-cigarettes once again heated up the National Assembly agenda as policymakers emphasized the harmful effects and consequences of e-cigarettes, which are being widely circulated and used in Vietnam,” local media outlets reported.
At the 14th National Assembly’s final session on March 24, Nguyen Anh Tri, a delegate from the capital city, said that the use of e-cigarettes is spreading very quickly in the country, especially targeting young people, thus causing serious harm to younger generations.
“E-cigarettes are the fastest way leading smokers to drugs so it is necessary to ban it, do not let it grow and then deal with its consequences in the future,” he said.
According to a website called vaping360.com, certain countries ban vaping because the “WHO and its tobacco control arm the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) — a global treaty organization with more than 180 member countries — have encouraged restrictions and bans on e-cigarettes since the earliest products began arriving on European and U.S. shores in 2007.”
In Singapore, vaping is banned which means it’s both illegal to use and sell. As of last year, possession is also a crime, punishable by fines of up to $1,500 (US) and even prison time. The same law is implemented in Cambodia, and in most Middle Eastern countries.
In Vietnam, despite the fact that smoking e-cigarettes is a forbidden behavior by school officials, a number of students still smoke after getting out of the school gate, or even at the school. They are interested in a new ‘experience’ and style rather than its harm to health.
A WHO global student health survey conducted in 21 cities and provinces of Vietnam in 2019 revealed that the rate of using vape smoking among students aged 13-17 started to increase to 2.6% of the total, about 20 times higher than previous years.
Nguyen Ngoc Anh, the Headmaster of Minh Khai Secondary School in Hanoi’s Bac Tu Liem District, told Hanoi Times that vape is gradually creeping into schools in the forms of lipstick, pens, and candies, making it hard for teachers and parents to recognize it.
Vapes come in different flavors — strawberry, orange, mango, melon, watermelon and even milk tea. They’re sold at very cheap prices, from VND120,000 to 150,000 apiece, making them reasonably affordable to teenage students.
WHO expert Nguyen Tuan Lam said most if not all vape products contain poisonous substances such as nicotine, metal, and formaldehyde. “As for adolescents, nicotine numbs the senses and causes loss of control, poor concentration, and impaired memory.”
Lam said that the young people, who have tried vaping, are more likely to start using traditional cigarettes 3.5 times higher than those who do not. There are 15,000 flavors in vapes with some ingredients making it more addictive, including cocaine and cannabis. “Vape is harmful to both users and surrounding people, in addition to a risk of serious injury due to battery explosion.”