Yemeni children’s future goes up in (tobacco) smoke [Archives:2008/1134/Health]

March 3 2008

Alia Ishaq
For Yemen Times

Tobacco kills up to half of those who use it – 5.4 million people a year – according the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report. Though it is widely known that Yemen has many adult smokers, there is another side to the story: child smokers.

The WHO conducted a 3,000-person survey in Yemen with male and female students between the ages of 13 and 15. The study found that nearly 19 percent of the children surveyed were already smokers at this age. This means that around 570 out of 3,000 students in middle school are smoking.

Nasser is 12-year-old boy who smokes while helping people carry their bags outside a supermarket.

When asked why he smokes, Nasser was indignant. “I'm a man now and I can do whatever I want to do,” he said. Nasser said he started smoking after his father died when he started working in order to support his family.

“A friend of mine whom I really admire convinced me to try smoking and I agreed because I wanted to be like him,” said Nasser.

15-year-old Amin, who washes cars and sells cassettes in the streets, said he had been smoking for four years, which meant he started smoking at 11. He says he smokes cigarettes to pass the time. When told that cigarettes could kill him Amin replied, “we are all going to die for different reasons, so I will only stop this habit once my life changes.”

Though these two boys were dropouts, not all those children who smoke spend their time in the street.

Ahmed, 18, a student at Al-Forsan private school in Sana'a, said his friends convinced him to smoke and, since some of his family members were smokers, he didn't think twice about picking up a cigarette. “My father and uncle smoke, so what makes it wrong for me to smoke?” said Ahmed. “Plus, I am not doing drugs or alcohol, and cigarettes do not make me high.”

“Most children smoke since they believe that they are “man enough” to do what they want,” said Dr. Ali Al-Mudhwahi, the Ministry of Health's director general of family health. “In some cases, it's simply because their parents smoke.”

Researchers at the said that about one third of all cancer is linked to tobacco use and 90 percent of lung cancer cases are linked to smoking. So how does tobacco cause problems in children's bodies?

Smoking interferes with normal lung development in those who begin smoking as children or adolescents, according to Young people who smoke may become even more addicted to cigarettes and face a greater risk for developing lung cancer than those who start smoking later in life. Child or adolescent smokers become more likely to face depression and other physiological problems as well.

The good news is that there are laws to control tobacco use around the world. Yemen initiated an anti-smoking law in 2005 as well, but has not gone far enough to enforce it.

The law's goal is to ban tobacco advertisements as well as to prohibit smoking in public places, including schools and hospitals. The law stipulates that anyone caught smoking in these places will be fined YR500.

Nabila Al-Moktar, Principal of the Fath Al-Tawkee public school in Sana'a, emphasized that smoking is prohibited inside school, whether the smoker is a student or a teacher. “However, the law is not implemented yet,” she said. “We hope the law will be taken seriously, especially by teachers who should be the role models for students.”

“We find it hard to stop teachers from smoking inside school since the smoking law is not enforced,” said Rokaya Abdu, Vice Principal of Fatima Al-Zahra, another public school in Sana'a. “In case of students, we try to stop them in nonviolent ways like calling their parents,” she added.

While progress to curb smoking has been made worldwide, not a single country fully implements all key tobacco control measures. Eighty percent of countries don't implement even one policy, said the WHO report.

Also, governments in lower income countries spend 9,000 times more money on tobacco import taxes each year than they spend on anti-tobacco efforts.

The report said that while tobacco is contributor to six of out of the eight leading causes of death in the world, it's still a preventable habit. If governments like Yemen's make more of an effort to fight smoking, eventually thousands of lives will be saved – including the lives of Yemeni children.