While on assignment in Vietnam a few years ago, I turned into a smoker, at least temporarily. I resisted at first, but my new acquaintances thought I was standoffish. My interviews didn’t work very well. So I gave in.
I took cigarettes offered and, in fact, bought some for others. Voila, the conversation began to flow. Soon, I’d come home reeking of tobacco smoke.
Taking and offering cigarettes is how friends and associates greet each other. It’s like a handshake. If you don’t shake hands, don’t expect the natives to be friendly. Which is perhaps why it’s an epidemic in Asia.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than one in four lights up regularly. Vietnam’s Health Education and Communication Center estimates that smoking kills 40,000 people in Vietnam each year and if no measures are taken, nearly 10 percent of the Vietnamese population will have died from smoking-related diseases by 2030. It’s an epidemic.
“If you don’t smoke, people will think you’re a sissy,” said one young man. Another, an upwardly mobile account executive for a fashion magazine told me, “My job demands the ability to drink and smoke. My business is done in bars and restaurants. You got to smoke.”
So I pretend to as well. Don’t get me wrong. With a degree in biochemistry and two uncles who died from cigarette smoking, I’m very aware of the habit’s deleterious effects. I puff but, like former President Clinton, I donít ever inhale.
I try, when possible, in one polite way or another tell friends and new acquaintances about the deleterious affects of practice. But most just laughed. “We all have to die at some point,” is the general answer.
Statistics show that nicotine addiction is more prevalent in Asia than anywhere else. Asian males consume virtually half of the worldís cigarettes. Vietnamese men, of course, contribute to the trend, with highest smoking prevalence rate for men in the world. But Vietnam is still behind China where 30 percent of the population smoke, according to the latest Gallup poll, and that’s around 320 million people.
Lately the Vietnamese government has stepped up anti-smoking campaigns. The State Movie Bureau, for instance, declared that it will edit out any smoking scenes in local films, with the exception of “indispensable smoking scenes,” such as war scenes, where soldiers share a smoke. But the anti-smoking campaign so far is largely cosmetic.
Ironically, itís in California where many Vietnamese immigrants quit smoking. One of the most effective anti-smoking campaign ever waged among Southeast Asian refugees in California was done by Suc Khoe La Vang, the Vietnamese Community Health Promotion Project out of University of California in San Francisco.
“Up to 50 percent of the participants quit in the first year,” one doctor in San Jose told me. He showed films, charts and documents on how smoking affects one’s health and, more important, the health of one’s family. One man cried and said he didn’t know secondary smoke was killing his kids, or at least making them less smart, the doctor reported.
“He found the strength to quit,” the doctor said, “not for himself, but for his childrenís future.”
If Vietnam wants to really change its bad habit, it should do more than edit local films. The key is to educate the population on the effects of secondhand smoke. A Vietnamese won’t give up for himself, but for his family it’s another matter.
Meanwhile, I too have a new resolve. I’m prepared to say “No” next time someone offers me a cigarette when I’m back in Vietnam, even at the risk of being seen as standoffish, or yes, even a sissy.
Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media and the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and his latest, “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in the Bay Area.