We need to smoke the habit, not window dress it

By Vu Ngoc Bao   November 23, 2020 | 05:00 pm PT
I slapped him hard.
Vu Ngoc Bao

Vu Ngoc Bao

My friend’s eyes flashed anger and then filled with tears.

We didn’t say anything. We didn’t have to.

We had promised each other that we would quit smoking. "If you see me smoke, you should slap me so it really hurts," he’d said.

One day, I went to his house to see him without prior notice and saw him drinking tea by himself, with a lit cigarette still in the ashtray.

He looked at me apologetically, but I slapped him anyway, despite knowing the action might not help him.

Nearly ten years ago, we both had moved from the north to live in the south. From smoking two packs of Vinataba per day, I had to switch to Craven A, Hero and Jet since they didn't sell "Vina" in the south. I wasn't used to them and kept coughing. They also cost more, but my repeated attempts to quit failed.

I had started early. When I was just 13, I had two sisters of marriageable age, and nearly every evening a group of men from the village would come to visit, bringing cigarettes with them. Cigarettes back then didn't have filters or foils. Each time, the men would leave behind a few leftover cigarettes, and I began smoking them out of curiosity. Then I practiced smoking so that the smoke would form an "O" or other shapes.

And just like that, I became an addict.

For the three years that I lived away from home to attend high school, I smoked an entire pack each day, and on some days, I even spent more money on cigarettes than on food. On waking up, it was the first thing I did – grab a cigarette and have a smoke. Only then did I brush my teeth. My friend who lived with me had to breathe in my smoke and, eventually, became a smoking addict as well.

I managed to quit after 15 long years when my wife gave birth. Lying near our sleeping child, I didn't dare breathe heavily for fear that the baby could be exposed to passive smoke too early. After smoking, I brushed my teeth and rinsed my mouth immediately, which also resulted in the cigarette not feeling "tasty" anymore.

I finally decided to quit and was successful. For nearly 20 years, I have not touched a single cigarette.

My friend and his family, however, are still struggling because of his smoking. After over 25 years of smoking, he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and just recently, had to be rushed to the emergency room.

By the time his family took him to the hospital, his body had already turned pale from being unable to breathe and doctors even told his wife to prepare for his funeral. Luckily, they managed to save him.

A 2015 survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that Vietnam was among 15 countries with the highest number of smokers in the world. In 2015, over 45.3 percent of adults in Vietnam were smokers, and it was over 65 percent for those in the 25-45 age group. This meant that on average, every family had a smoker, resulting in a very high percentage of non-smokers being exposed to passive smoke.

It is estimated that nearly 60 percent of the population are passively smoking inside their own homes, and 42.6 percent of them are exposed to passive smoke at their workplaces. Each year, around 40,000 people die from smoking-related diseases in Vietnam. The habit steals about 13.2 years of life expectancy from male smokers and about 14.5 years from female smokers.

The taxes s levied on tobacco products in recent years have increased significantly, but the average price of a cigarette pack decreased from VND12,700 in 2010 to VND11,800 in 2015. When compared with the increases in base salary, tobacco products have become very cheap in comparison to other commodities.

Unlike gasoline, tobacco products are not subject to environmental tax. Taxes levied on tobacco products only comprise excise tax and value-added tax, which in total account for about 45 percent of their retail prices. This is much lower than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, who have suggested that taxes should account for 65 to 80 percent.

Check out some figures

With a large consumer market as well as low tax rates, the tobacco industry makes a lot of profit. On its website, Vinataba claims to have a market share of over 67 percent. In 2019, the company contributed over VND11.3 trillion ($489.6 million) to the state budget, a record high number in its 35-year history, and earned profits of nearly VND1.6 trillion ($68.9 million).

If we assume the other companies that account for the remaining 33 percent of the market share also made similar contributions to the state budget, the tobacco industry as a whole contributed nearly VND17 trillion. This is significantly lower than the VND23 trillion that Vietnam spends on treating smoking-related diseases, as estimated by the WHO.

According to a World Bank report, Vietnam had about 15 million smokers in 2015. It estimated that each year Vietnamese spend more than VND38 trillion on buying cigarettes, and that's not including the money spent on treating related diseases like lung cancer, ischemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Just the amount of money Vietnamese spend on buying cigarettes is enough to fully complete the North-South Expressway or the Long Thanh Airport on schedule.

A man holds cigarettes in this photo taken in 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

A man breaks a cigarette in this photo taken in 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

A government decree that came into effect on November 15 raised the fine for smoking in non-smoking areas from VND300,000 to VND500,000. Shops that sell cigarettes without displaying a sign stating they won't sell to those under 18 would be fined VND1-3 million. The fine for selling or supplying cigarettes to those under 18 has also been raised to VND3-5 million. These new regulations have "increased functional forces' authority and enabled them to strengthen the issuing of fines," a health ministry representative said.

However, when I asked my acquaintances, many of whom are smokers, not one had heard of the new rules or seen anyone being fined for smoking. According to the health ministry's inspectors, the total amount of fines issued across the country in 2017 and 2018 for smoking in non-smoking areas was just over VND200 million.

Since the inspection force is very thin and the number of smokers is huge, violators can easily dispose of any evidence by tossing their cigarettes away or moving out of non-smoking areas the moment any inspector approaches.

And even when caught red-handed, smokers can avoid paying fines by saying they have no identification document on them, or that they have no money or making a big argument.

If the only measure is to fine smokers, regardless of how high the fine, it would do little to reduce the number of smokers in the country.

Where my friend works, the break room is relatively narrow, and it becomes crammed with smokers.

Even in the small, air-conditioned office room with just him and his manager, the ceiling is stained yellow from cigarette smoke. During company meetings, the boss brings his ashtray with him to the meeting room so that he can continue smoking. Other department managers would also bring a cigarette each, and the meeting room would fill up with smoke as if it was a sauna.

I believe we need to levy more taxes, significantly raise cigarette prices, limit tobacco sales points, impose stricter requirements for buyers, and take measures to control "alternative" products such as pipe tobacco and e-cigarettes. These not-so-new measures are certainly not redundant, and have been in effect for long in Singapore and Japan. Some might say that such measures only work in those countries because the people there have a higher intellectual level. That is a fallacious argument. Compliance depends on strict law and disciplined abidance.

Without really tough rules and their strict implementation, without comprehensive measures, a fine of VND500,000 per violation for smoking in non-smoking areas is nothing more than window dressing for those struggling with their health, but still unable to quit, like my friend.

The government should realize that tobacco is not a cost-effective industry and act accordingly.

Prevention is better than the cure, they say. In this case, prevention IS the cure.

*Vu Ngoc Bao is a law expert. The opinions expressed here is his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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