To Snub Vietnam’s Smoking Habit Doctors Enlist Families, Spouses

Health - Vietnam: Sept. 17, 2018

Asia’s smoking rate has been high, and now efforts are being made to combat its pervasive effects in Vietnam.

It’s easy to start smoking in Vietnam. Packs of cigarettes are available on the street, often for less than US$1. The lack of regulation in their sale and distribution make them accessible, even to developing young people, who suffer the most from tobacco’s harmful effects. Warning labels with photographs of blackened lungs, tracheotomy wounds, and babies born sick and with low birth weights, have succeeded in curbing the habit in Vietnam more than text-only warnings, but the smoking rate remains quite high.

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According to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco kills roughly 6 million people per year around the globe, and the ripple effects of this loss cause the world’s economy to lose trillions of dollars per year. More than 30 percent of the world’s smokers live in Asia, with over 80 percent of that population coming from lower income groups.

More than one in four people in Vietnam smoke, and according to Vietnam’s Health Education and Communication Center the habit kills 40,000 people each year. Without cessation efforts, nearly a tenth of the population will die from diseases related to smoking by the year 2030.

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Dr. Mason Cobb practices with Victoria Healthcare in Ho Chi Minh City and has been a part of an ongoing smoking cessation campaign. Cobb discussed the ubiquity of smoking in Vietnam, and his organization’s efforts to curb Vietnam’s collective smoking habit. He recounts an experience first coming to Vietnam two decades ago. “When I first started coming out here 20 years ago there was a huge billboard at Tan Son Nhat Airport of the ‘Marlboro Man’ [advertising campaign featuring a smoking cowboy] from America. Cowboy hat, sheepskin, mustache roping a cow or something with a cigarette in his mouth. There is this image of [cigarette smoking] being very macho, and that was promoted”, he said.

The ideological correlation between smoking and masculinity is reflected in the demographics of smokers in Vietnam.

Somewhere between 45 and 50 percent of smokers in Vietnam are men, while only two to five percent of Vietnamese women indulge.

“Right now the social structure for many people, men especially, is after work you go to a bar with your friends. All the people in the bar smoking, your friends are smoking, and these are very difficult headwinds for anybody”, he said. Cobb’s organization seeks to use these demographics as a means of deterring men from smoking. “Most women are not entirely happy with smoking, especially in the house. What our program does is really try to enlist the family to be of help.”

Cobb believes that since women are more concerned with the effects of smoking on the family, their role is crucial to smoking cessation endeavors.

“People are becoming more aware of second hand smoke. Your chance of your child having more limited growth, asthma or some other conditions, or your child having slow intellectual development is even higher as a smoker”, he explained.

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Cobb believes that it is going to take a cultural shift in Vietnam for there to be lasting change, and there are already signs that this is occurring. “There’s another trend… that’s sweeping the country, and that’s health.” This change has already occurred places in the west such as the US, where smoking has declined from 20.9 percent (nearly 21 of every 100 adults) in 2005 to 15.5 percent (more than 15 of every 100 adults) in 2016. “With education, more knowledge about what may be healthy and what’s not healthy and also more connection with what’s going on in the mainstream”, Cobb said.

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