Why is tobacco still an issue ?

Diana Wangari, CNS Correspondent, Kenya 
(First published in The Star, Kenya) 
I must confess, there are health concerns that amaze me – not because they are complex or a rare find, but because I simply cannot understand how they are still an issue. These often fall under lifestyle choices, and a good example is cigarette smoking. When in primary school, we used to have a drug awareness week and the last day would be dedicated to tobacco. The reason behind it was that the session utilized what many would refer to as graphic images of the effects of smoking – from yellowing of teeth to a darkened lung in the late stages of lung cancer.

I remember looking at those pictures and wondering why anyone would put themselves in such a state. If no one put a gun to your head then why smoke in the first place?

Of course, the answer is not so simple as there are different variables that lead one to smoking. But here's the thing, a few years later, I run into a former classmate – one who had sat through the same sessions-- smoking what looked like his second cigarette, judging from the pack he was clutching on his other hand. If you are about to get judgmental that I probably started preaching of the negative effects of smoking on his health and urged him to stop, I did not. But I probably should have.

This past week, I run into him again...in hospital. And no, he does not have lung cancer – but he was sick and his smoking did not help his condition one bit. He mentioned to me that it started off as an experiment, and he ‘somehow’ found himself hooked. I know it is a story we have all heard before, and so is that of peer pressure and western culture influence.

But are you aware that aside from just dealing with the negative effects of tobacco, there is a phenomenon known as illicit trade of tobacco products where the major groups affected are the youth and low-income earners? These products sold in the market are much more affordable, and often do not display health warnings required by the law, yet they somehow find their way to the market. So the whole issue goes beyond health – it involves policy and government.

For the longest time, I simply thought of smoking as a choice made by an individual, which (do not get me wrong) it still is, considering my former classmate. But I am starting to wonder, could it be that it is not just the individuals failing themselves but also our governments?

The effects of cigarette smoking are known, but why is it one of those products that you cannot fail to miss in a shop no matter how remote the location is? How is it that children as young as 13 years of age are able to gain access to such products? Why are we seemingly afraid to speak out? Are we becoming complacent? And as we celebrate World No Tobacco Day, year after year, I cannot help but wonder, why is tobacco still an issue?

(First published in The Star, Kenya)

Diana Wangari, Citizen News Service -CNS
24 June 2015

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