Non-smokers must speak up

31 May 2017:

THERE are more smokers today than ever before. Although the percentage of smokers may be decreasing, there are almost a billion daily smokers across the globe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) produced a report — the “Global Burden of Disease” — stating that a quarter of the male population smoked daily in 2015, and just over five per cent of women smoked as well.

Needless to say, these figures are linked to a significant amount of disease and death — the latter amounting to six million per annum. However, these numbers do not paint the full picture as they do not take into account the effect of tobacco on those who do not smoke, such as secondhand or passive smokers.

Secondhand smoke harms other adults and children. While this applies to even those without any health issues, it is particularly relevant to those who have underlying health problems, such as asthma and heart disease. The presence of smoke from both tobacco and electronic cigarettes are irritants to the airways.

Victims of secondhand smoke are usually not in a position to defend their rights to clean air. Children are particularly affected — it is well documented that secondhand smoke causes more frequent and severe asthma attacks, stunts development of growing lungs, increases ear and lung infections and even increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

Unfortunately, there is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke, as even the briefest of exposure can be harmful. This means the only way to protect non-smokers is to ensure that we have smoke-free environments.

In September 2015, countries within the WHO adopted a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with the aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. Although it may sound lofty, each goal has targets to be achieved by 2030.

SDG 11 is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. The goal specifies an added impetus for women and children, older persons and those with disabilities, such as those who are at risk of having their rights overlooked.

These rights include the right to tobacco smoke-free air. WHO’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, which Malaysia ratified in 2005, requires that countries make public and work places 100 per cent smoke-free. Unfortunately, we still come across many instances of non-compliance.

For example, non-air-conditioned restaurants are still not smoke-free and there are a number of offices that skirt around the issue. In fact, four in 10 adults who work indoors in Malaysia are exposed to tobacco smoke at the workplace.

There is always a huge outcry by small establishments that a ban on smoking in public places will affect their business. Similar protests were heard when the United Kingdom banned smoking in workplaces in 2007, but such fears were proven to be unfounded. In fact, there are hardly any instances across the world where a food and beverage outlet has gone bust because of a smoke-free area, and some even have more clientele.

A louder outcry should be made by the majority of the public who are not smokers and who are constantly assailed by cancer-causing agents that fill the air. We should raise the decibels when it comes to ensuring that irresponsible parents do not smoke in cars with children, inconsiderate vaping is not done in the presence of pregnant women, and that indiscriminate tobacco smoke does not cause an asthma attack.

The theme for World No Tobacco Day, which is today, is “Tobacco — a threat to development”. It is high time the rest of us highlight the health and economic consequences of smoking in public. It is only when the silent majority remain silent no longer that there will be more compulsion to protect our right to clean air.

Dr Helmy Haja Mydin is a consultant in respiratory medicine and
co-founder of Asthma Malaysia (