Tobacco, alcohol and other drug users have always been a topic of concern in various platforms. Over the years, there have been fluctuating trends in rates of tobacco and alcohol consumption. However, with the government imposing certain regulations in terms of propaganda, the once powerful tobacco industry is now lying low. In the light of the World Tobacco Day a series of programmes will be conducted by the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, in collaboration with the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL).
“The tobacco industry seems to have a plan for your death ”
-Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya
Speaking to the , Consultant Psychiatrist, NHSL and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya, spoke about the current trends of smoking in Sri Lanka and the World No Tobacco Day programme. Excerpts:
Q How is the consumption of tobacco in Sri Lanka today? Has the trend increased or decreased?
For many years cigarette smoking has been decreasing in Sri Lanka. We know this as studies show a decreasing trend of the proportion of people smoking and the tobacco industry data shows that the number of sticks produced each year is decreasing as well. Perhaps Sri Lanka is the only underdeveloped country where cigarette smoking is decreasing each year.
Q A brief about the ‘World No Tobacco Day’ programme initiated in Sri Lanka.
The Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Prof. Jennifer Perera, wanted to initiate a project to commemorate World No Tobacco Day which falls on May 31. With her wise guidance and unwavering leadership, a few of the academics in the faculty developed an idea, which later turned out to be a one year plan. This project will be carried out in collaboration with the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, which is closely associated with the Faculty of Medicine. The main objectives of these programmes are to reduce the demand and supply of tobacco and other drugs as well in future, among the Health Assistants and Cleaning Service staff of NHSL and to declare the NHSL, Medical Faculty and surrounding area ‘tobacco and other drug free zone’ by World No Tobacco Day (31 May) next year.
Q Pictorial warnings and other anti-tobacco campaigns were initiated during the recent past. Do these have an impact on the usage of tobacco today?
Of course. The anti-tobacco campaign has been very assertive, creative and effective in Sri Lanka for the last two decades or more. That is probably why we are the only developing country in the world with a decreasing smoking prevalence.
It is probably too early to comment on the effectiveness of pictorial warnings on cigarette packets. We have not come across any of
Sri Lankan research studies published on this topic yet. However the research evidence from world over strongly shows that pictorial warnings are able to increase the motivation in smokers to quit and keep young people away from taking up smoking.
Steering committe, medical students and others gathered before the Awareness Programme begins
Q Many young people and even adults still resort to smoking and drinking as means of ‘having fun’. How do you see this?
Having fun, becoming an adult or being macho and even being different etc., are carefully developed traps of the tobacco industry, which we fall pray to. That is why they continue with glamorous advertisements, crafty product placements in movies and TV shows including children’s programmes and other media to sustain these attractive mental images of smoking and smokers, which are nothing but clever and immoral marketing techniques.
Q Is smoking an effective coping mechanism as some people see it? What other alternatives do you suggest?
‘Smoking is a coping mechanism to face stress’ is another mental trap the tobacco industry introduced to the world. Those who have a habit of biting nails or picking the nose tends to do it more frequently when he is anxious. So, the smoker does the same. The tobacco industry wants to cash in on this, and they succeeded in it.
Q Today there are various types of brands being sold in the market. Do you think the government would ban the use of tobacco in the future?
Although there are many brands of cigarettes in Sri Lanka, there is only one cigarette-manufacturing company that is Ceylon Tobacco Company, which to a very large extent is owned by British American Tobacco. Tobacco is also used as beedi. Smokeless tobacco includes chewing tobacco with or without betel and
Banning cigarettes? Bhutan, the world’s only carbon negative country, has beaten us already. They have completely banned cigarette sales and smoking. I would like Sri Lanka to join this exclusive club soon. Many activists, both local and international, believe that it is going to happen. Our President has shown clear signs that such a plan is probably on the table.
Q It is learned that tobacco contributes a great deal to the economy. Is there a plan to reach people of different strata in society in order to spread awareness?
How does tobacco contribute to the economy? The net contribution is negative. From the economic costs of harm to the agriculture from tobacco growing to the economic costs of health and lives lost due to smoking, the loss to the economy is enormous. The WHO has recognized tobacco as a main impediment to economic development.
Q A message to all tobacco and other drug users.
I have no plan to intervene with the way you live and die (which can be horrible if you are a smoker), but the tobacco industry seems to have such a plan.
“Consumers will lose a great deal through smoking and drinking” -Dr. Cyril De Silva
In his comments to the Dailymirror, Deputy Director of the NHSL, Dr Cyril De Silva who is actively involved in the World No Tobacco Day programme, reiterated the activities done by the NHSL. “The NHSL has established units for health promotion activities along with informal methods of spreading awareness such as group discussions at clinic pharmacy OPD, display of posters, one to one discussions (affected patients & families), and special clinics for addicts every Thursdays. The government can be involved in reducing alcohol consumption in users by taxing, limiting sales near schools and temples, taking action against illicit alcohol, imposing strict rules to renew or issue bar licence, implementing legal provisions such as age of employment etc., fining drunken drivers and banning smoking in public areas. It is important to understand how much you will lose by consuming alcohol & smoking. This loss has not been calculated by clients and also they are aware about this loss. The physical, social, economic & mental losses are enormous.”