Viet Nam News
It was a Sunday afternoon in a café by Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hà Nội. A young man was lighting up a cigarette while holding an infant, possibly his son or daughter, with his other hand. Such a sight isn’t rare in Việt Nam, a country where more than 45 per cent of the male population are smokers, according to a report by the Global Adult Tobacco Survey published in 2015.
While the number of smokers has slowly declined in recent years thanks to awareness-raising campaigns that have publicised the harmful effects of cigarettes, not much has been done to change smokers’ behavior, especially when it comes to exposing their children to second- hand smoke at home or in public.
Studies have shown that second-hand smoke is almost as deadly as first-hand smoke, especially to children. Children with parents who smoke are more likely to suffer from ear infection, bronchitis, pneumonia and poor lung development. Even more severe, second-hand smoke contains some 7,000 chemical toxins, and 60 of them are known to cause cancer.
With nearly one out of two Vietnamese men smoking on a regular basis, many children may be suffering from second-hand smoke at home. The consequences for the well-being of those children may be catastrophic unless major steps are taken to address this issue.
The country’s anti-smoking regulations have made it mandatory for tobacco companies to put horrifying images on packets of cigarettes. The pictures are usually of lung cancer, tooth and gum decay or even photos that hint at male erectile dysfunction. While those ads may remind smokers of the harmful effects of smoking and occasionally scare off potential puffers, they also leave out some inconvenient truths.
A Hà Nội resident, Hạnh, who works as a nanny, said her daughter is only 9 months old but has been to the hospital’s emergency room four times due to respiratory problems. The baby had weak lungs, the result of being born prematurely and exposed to cigarette smoke from her father, a heavy smoker. They live in a small apartment with poor ventilation, meaning the smoke collects in the rooms.
A doctor told the child’s father to stop smoking indoor. “It’s a small effort a parent can make to protect their kids. Simply step outside when you smoke a cigarette,” the doctor said. “Ideally you should quit smoking but if you are to continue at least make sure the kid is nowhere around when you smoke.”
There are laws prohibiting smoking in public places such as offices, bus stations, parks and hospitals, but little is being done to reinforce them.
A security guardat Giáp Bát Bus Station, Nguyên, said there is nothing he can do to stop people from smoking in the waiting area, often in the presence of children and pregnant women. “Only the police can fine these smokers and we cannot call them every time someone light up a cigarette, can we?” he said.
Nguyên said it’s a lost cause because when they’re told not to smoke they’ll stub it out and light another as soon as the guard turns his back. It’s as if the big red ‘No Smoking’ sign was just for decoration.
The situation is not much better in cafés and restaurants, where adults can be seen happily puffing away when there are children running around. Waiters and waitresses are often too afraid to tell their customers to put out their cigarettes, for fear of repercussion or they are simply told to ignore it by their employers.
“I know it’s not good for the kids and I personally hate the smell,” Linh, a waitress working in a café on Nguyễn Hữu Huân Street, said, “But the owner doesn’t want to do anything about it because he is afraid it may turn customers away”.
With very little being done to reinforce the law when it comes to smoking in public, we may have to rely on smokers’ courtesy to refrain from lighting up around children.
“I’ve been smoking for almost 15 years but I don’t smoke when there are children or pregnant women around. That’s kind of my rule,” said Tùng, a chain smoker who said he consumed a pack of cigarettes most days. However, he admitted that many of his peers often carry on regardless.
“A little bit won’t hurt. That’s what many of them would say. I don’t agree but it’s their kids. What else can I do?” he said.
Little bits add up, and will hurt eventually if children are continually exposed to smoking at home and in public. With the way things are now, there are almost no safe zones for children to escape the acrid clouds.
I believe that parents will do anything to give their children the best possible future. What we must do is make sure they are aware of the health consequences of second-hand smoking for children. For starters, anti-smoking ads should shift their focus onto the dangerous effect of cigarettes on children.
Smokers often argue that it is within their rights to endanger their health by smoking. We should, therefore, pose the question: is it also within their rights to endanger the life of innocent children around them? -VNS