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FEATURE: Voluntary killer- Tobacco Use

by Tamara Rodney

Raj (not his real name) smokes one and a half packs of cigarettes each day. At 37, this goldsmith  is among the large number of smokers in Guyana who started this habit in their early teens. “I start to smoke when I was about 14. Me father show me how to do it and I never stopped since then. I does just feel to smoke and I smoke. It does make me feel comfortable.”

About 80 % of the world’s smokers live in developing countries. In Guyana, tobacco users make up about 50 % of the population, with 21 % of that amount being teens between 13- 15 years old. This habit is linked to the prevalence of non- communicable diseases, including cancers and respiratory problems. With such a negative impact on public health and  the environment,  Guyana has joined the  global movement to enforce tobacco control through anti- smoking campaigns.

 “We have been lagging behind, I was advised that the final review of the legislation was conducted, hence, Dr. Norton and I have been working assiduously to get the tobacco control bill passed,”saidMinister within the Ministry of Public Health, Honourable Dr, Karen Cummings during her address at the Caribbean Wellness Week activities.

Public health areas and schools, including the University of Guyana are smoke free zones, but more needs to be done in light of the high numbers of smokers in the country and the need for more tobacco control. “We need to have those statistics change: the cars that we ride in, the homes we live in, the schools we lean in must be free from smoke: smoking kills”, Dr. William Adu- Krow, Pan American Health Organisation Country Representative.

Although Parliament Building has been declared a Smoke Free Zone for some time now, there is one thing that cuts across the political divide- the smoking of cigarettes on the balcony especially during breaks in the sitting of the National Assembly. There, government and opposition parliamentarians put aside their differences, share cigarettes and lend lighters to each other.

One of these  campaigns was observed during the Caribbean Wellness Week celebrations hosted by the Pan Americian Health Organisation (PAHO) in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Education. With such a high number of young people smoking in the country, the programme was designed to target the youth, through dramatic presentations and messages from some leaders. The messagesof the plays were “smoking kills” and “stop smoking now”.

“The session was very educational. We learnt about the causes and effects of smoking, the teaching was rewarding”- Jasmine Hermonstine, a  student of New Campbillvlle Secondary.

“One of the things that stuck with me was the play with the man who smoked but didn’t want his daughter to smoke. The plays were very educational and we are young so it is good that we know smoking kills”- Chantel Dey, Bishops High School.

The Global Impact of Tobacco

Six million people die  from smoking  or using tobacco products each year. Although it is the world’s sixth leading killer, more than a billion people still smoke. Apart from that, it is a major contributor to environmental pollution. In countries where tobacco is grown and processed, the environment suffers damage as a result of deforestation, which occur from clearing trees to accommodate tobacco farm lands. Chemicals found in the tobacco plants also leak into the soil nutrients which affect long term fertility. This damage is separate from the liter generated from cigarette buds which are not bio- degradable- World Health Organisation (WHO).

 The Hook

“Tobacco products are made entirely or partly of leaf tobacco as raw material, which are intended to be smoked, sucked, chewed or snuffed. All contain the highly addictive psychoactive ingredient, nicotine”- (WHO). Itis the only legal drug,  that is responsible for illnesses and so many deaths, even when used correctly.

Nicotine is among 4000 chemicals that is found in tobacco. It is the component that makes tobacco addictive; increases heart rate and raises blood pressure. Once it gets into the user’s bloodstream, he or she craves more of the drug.

The hook is what cause many people to continue smoking and even experiment with other products like marijuana, hemp and cocaine.Mr. Singh (not his real name) is another smoker who was candid enough to tell me about all the products he usually smokes. “ I prefer weed even though I does smoke cigarette. I had a girlfriend who smoke weed so that is how I start.” He was about 22 back then and still continues to smoke everyday. “I try everything. Coke (cocaine) too, and I don’t think I could stop in a hurry.” He also explained that marijuana costs $500 Guyana dollars and more. “The harder the stuff, the more expensive it is”, Singh added.

Besides the chain smoker or addict, that is, the person who cannot do without, lest they feel nervous or irritable, there are the casual smokers like Carlton (not his real name). He does not smoke cigarettes at all, “just herbs”, he calmly said. Like the statistics indicated, the 26 year old University of Guyana student started when he was in fourth form,. “I don’t have a reason for doing it, just curious I guess”. When asked about the craving he said, “Nah, just do it on a mystic, don’t know what the hook on it is about… it’s better in brownies, works in the system faster and gives you a better high, at least for me.”

Marijuana brownies and other weed edibles including candy, gummy bears, cakes and sweets are very common. Many people prefer edible marijuana items and there is much controversy around legalising this substance.

Tobacco Control

 In spite of the proven harm of tobacco on health and the environment, there are people who still advocate tobacco use. Some argue that ending the tobacco industry will negatively impact the economy and employment.The mediator between the two sides seems to be the Tobacco Control laws and policies.

In Guyana, the Protection of Children Act No. 17, 2009 states that ”A person who sells, gives or causes to come into the possession of a child a drug, substance “which is or, is such quantity that it may be harmful,” intoxicating liquor or tobacco products, commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of two hundred thousand dollars, or to imprisonment for a term of six months.

There are also stipulations on labeling and advertising tobacco products.The Guyana National Bureau of Standards stipulates that “advertisements for cigarettes shall incorporate a warning notice in the following words -”Warning: The Minister of Health advises that Smoking can be Dangerous to Health.”

Tobacco smoking is not just harmful to smokers, but second hand smoke can cause illnesses and deaths among non – smokers too.

For starters, PAHO wants Guyana to increase the tax on cigarettes so that it will cost more and so discourage persons from buying what some people refer to as “cancer sticks.”