The Risk of Public Smoking and the Absence of Tobacco Regulation – secondhand smokers are also at risk


June 15, 2020

By Ibrahim Sorie Koroma

Pa Momoh  (not his real name); a veteran miner in his  early 70s was playing draft in one of the biggest Ataya Bases in the east of Freetown, puffing whitish cigarette smoke from his nostril  and his mouth like a chimney of a British styled colonial manufacturing industry  in a dramatic fashion.

He was smoking with so much relish as if the last stick would not come. He had finished his second packet of cigarette and was winning his 10th match in a draft game. His appetite was apparently motivated by addition and fueled by his convincing winning which gave him an edge.

Pa Momoh seated together with over a dozen people and was finishing his last stick from the second packet of cigarette. There was time to replenish and he shouted the eight year old Peggy, who rushed to get him another packet as if he was practicing for a 100 meter Olympic track event.

Upon Peggy’s arrival, Pa Momoh hurriedly snatched the packet of cigarette even without a scan of Peggy’s face and fast-opened the packet with a stick already tightly clipped with his greyish lips and there was puffing of smoke all over the place, much so to the discomfort of his fellow player and onlookers who have been waiting patiently their turn to play.

I held on and did not utter a word – this also prevented me from doing my usual health promotion to change behaviors just to make sense of the whole scene, as social/physical distancing was practically undoable by Pa Momoh and the onlookers, not to talk of wearing facemask.  

Back to Pa Momoh’s tobacco scene, where one bystander could not bear it at all and had to caution him to stop smoking in the midst of other people or in public.

As if the rest of the onlookers were waiting for an opportunity. They came on him heavily, but he arrogantly justified that it was his right to smoke and that no one can stop him, as there is no specially created area for smoking.  The disagreement nearly ended up in a fiasco which was repelled by some other people.

Little did Pa Momoh know of the risks of secondhand smoking which is caused by active cigarette smokers like Pa Momoh.  This is the situation we are now in Sierra Leone, where there are no legal instruments that can regulate/control the sale and use of tobacco products in the country. Even with all the risk factors of tobacco smoking/exposure to young children, pregnant women and nonsmokers, it is clear that someone has got the right to smoke bogusly in public without recognizing the right of other people to good health and or healthy space. Scaring though!!

Social and Behavioral Change Communication experts have argued that legal instruments like strong tobacco regulation can be instituted to effect a change of behavior where other tools of behavior change communication have failed.

For over 10 years now, the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and its partners have struggled to get the National Tobacco Bill passed into law in Parliament. The bill if passed into law will definitely address the scenario of Pa Momoh who was viewed smoking in public with so much pride and prestige and other issues around taxation, social marketing and advertising, the use and sale of tobacco products to minors and a host of other tobacco related issues of public health concerns.  

You have read the opening paragraph of this article which clearly pinpoints the use of minors/children in the tobacco smoking enterprise that is portrayed by Pa Momoh. This is the situation in most deprived homes and communities where children are either being used in the sale and or purchase of tobacco products, putting them at the spot of practicing the use of tobacco products, even at the expense of their precious health.

Issues like this can be prevented with robust public education /awareness raising drive and strong legal instruments like tobacco laws/regulations.

Why secondhand smoking/tobacco exposure is a major public health issue

One online published Article on the effects of tobacco use defines secondhand smoking as the combination of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette and the smoke breathe out by smokers. It further states that secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals of which hundreds are toxic and about 70 can cause cancer.

It is also worth knowing that secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is a sudden, unexplained, unexpected death of an infant in the first year of life. SIDS is the leading cause of death in otherwise healthy infants around the world. Secondhand smoke increases the risk of SIDS and even more dangerous in women during pregnancy which results have shown of causing more than 1,000 infant deaths annually.

In fact, exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and can cause coronary heart disease and stroke.

For example, in the U.S alone secondhand smoking causes nearly 34,000 premature deaths from heart disease each year among nonsmokers.

It is now clear that secondhand smoking in public, in homes, offices puts people’s health a risk of cardiovascular diseases like hypertension, stroke, and high blood/raised blood pressure. It is even worst in children and pregnant women with severe health complications.

Vulnerable groups like children and unborn babies and their mothers can be prevented from the risks of secondhand smoking by creating knowledge on the harmful effects of secondhand smoking or a robust nationwide awareness raising/public education campaign.  

However, you will agree with this writer that in situations where Social and Behavior Change Communication models have failed to influence people’s behavior, legal instruments like a strong tobacco law can make a great deal of impact. You know, changing attitude is a science and takes time and consistent education which can be measured through scientific trends.

Even in the African Region, countries like the Gambia, South Africa have been able to make strong laws on tobacco control, which have also supported tax growth and limit/ prevent tobacco related diseases.

Let me end with this coat from U.S. Surgeon General who in his Report states that “there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke”, meaning there is no way one can be safe from the health risks of tobacco smoke when someone has got the right to smoke in public even bogusly like Pa Momoh with no legal limitations/regulation. Too bad, though. This is a wake-up call to our law makers.

About the Author:

Ibrahim Sorie Koroma is a graduate in Mass Communication and Health Education/Promotion Officer at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation

Phone: +23279020080/088767145