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Reflections through the smoke screen

Jun 07,2014 - Last updated at Jun 07,2014

As we mark World No Tobacco Day, it is a chance to take stock of where we are now, or rather how far we are still from achieving this elusive objective… a Jordan that is truly tobacco free!

Much has happened since last year’s World No Tobacco Day. Jordan reduced the price of cigarettes (a decision that shocked many at the time), but thankfully, this decision was reversed when prices at least went back to what they were before. Jordan still hosts a giant from the world of international cigarette companies to lead our market and stalk our young.

We valued our government’s bold and responsible attempt at implementing the 2008 Public Health Law that bans smoking in public places, as a positive sign that Jordan now means business. However, we were quickly disappointed and let down when the government succumbed to pressure from the few who opposed the law and as such, failed to implement it.

The stark reality is that we still have an inferno of cigarette and shisha smokers. The prevalence of tobacco-use among adults is 32 per cent (more than one-third of our society) at a rate of 55 per cent among males (i.e. over half), and 8 per cent among females. What is even more shocking is that a quarter of our students between the ages of 13 and 15 years are also users of at least one tobacco product!

These alarming figures are directly reflective of the fact that smoking is the number one cause of 85 per cent of lung cancers among Jordanians, and is also the cause of 40 per cent of all cancers in Jordan. Smoking is responsible for 50 per cent of deaths due to cancer, heart and lung diseases, as well as diabetes. 

To make things worse, the new curse of what is called the “shisha gatherings” has made sure that we now have a new generation of addicted families, (yes, we now unfortunately work on a wholesale level!) who cannot fathom an outing or even a family gathering at home without holding a cup of coffee in one hand and the precious shisha hose in another. 

Ever since the outburst of the whole shisha/argileh debate and all of the controversy surrounding it, something new emerged through the smoke screen. The discussions and debate presented were very telling about where we, as a community, stand with regards to the smoking ban. Several observations were noted. 

I, personally, was both bewildered and shocked by the strong reactions of those who opposed the application of the law and were adamant about holding on to the shisha epidemic that has spread like cancer in our society, as if it is as precious as the water that sustains us! What surprised me more is how passionate and heated the debate was.

I was also stunned even more by the absence of the voice of the silent majority and, more importantly, about their lack of awareness about the significance of their votes in changing the course of events. 

As for smokers, they need to know the importance of their voices as well, as they are the main victims of the tobacco industry, and the vast majority of these victims all agree that they would not want their children to be victims of addiction like they are.

What I find totally unacceptable as well is the fact that our society still fails to connect the concept of freedom and responsibility with smoking. When someone lights up a cigarette in a public place, this person is not making a personal decision to waive his/her own health, but is also making a conscious decision to automatically rob the non-smoker occupying that space of his/her right to breathe smoke-free air. It goes without saying that we all know that one’s freedom ends where the freedom of another person begins.

Most importantly, people have forgotten two central unchangeable facts that frame any legitimate argument with regards to smoking: On the one hand, nobody can deny the damage that comes from tobacco products and the fact that the first and last enemy is the tobacco industry. On the other hand, a fact as clear as the blue sky, is that the victims are always us, old and young, male and female, rich and poor, smokers and non-smokers. These two undeniable facts frame the entire discussion and whatever argument falls in between is thereby null and void. 

In this context, putting commercial and personal welfare above public welfare becomes totally irresponsible. Not implementing a Health Law decreed since 2008 is preposterous. Furthermore, what message are we sending to our children and young adults about the importance of becoming law-abiding citizens, when we apparently can choose which laws we wish to enforce and which we choose to ignore?

We really need to be honest with ourselves about what damaging role we are playing as a society with regards to the smoking epidemic, and why we choose to self-destruct and ruin our own health and our children’s health. We are all responsible for this as parents, schools, companies, and governmental and non-governmental institutions.

We have reached that point where we can no longer wait one more day to fight smoking. If we continue to ignore our responsibility towards future generations, no Ministry of Health will be able to cope with the avalanche of patients suffering from cancer, diabetes, and heart and lung diseases. Cancer alone now afflicts 5,000 new patients a year and this number is expected to double by 2020.

Despite the fact that the situation seems quite bleak, there is one silver lining. This past year has brought with it the birth of an anti-smoking movement — albeit an extremely small one. One has to acknowledge the fact that “a smoking conversation” managing to take a big portion of our public debate, which is normally replete with other critical crises usually deemed more urgent, is an achievement in itself. 

Last but not least, the application of the 2008 Public Health Law remains the most important and fastest way to protect our families and our children. Otherwise, we will continue to suffocate from an enormous cloud of smoke, a cloud that impairs our vision and makes us unable to see the deadly consequences of tomorrow if we do not act today.

The writer has led the King Hussein Cancer Foundation as director general since 2002. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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