By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist
Are you a smoker? Maybe you’ve quit, or have you never taken a puff? Perhaps, like many of us, you fall somewhere in between.
I have a lifetime count of less than 100 cigarettes, but I’m not protected: One in ten tobacco-related deaths involves a never-smoker. And of those deaths, one in four is a child — because there is no safe level of second-hand smoke.
Tomorrow, May 31, is World No Tobacco Day, a time to contemplate these grim facts and consider what we can do to make a difference.
In my early 20s, working in Saint-Louis, Senegal, I occasionally smoked, even though I hated cigarettes. Smoke filled that sleepy town’s only nightclub, and on Saturday nights, my Gauloises burnt down to my fingertips. Smoking was my cover charge for entertainment.
Several years ago, when I lived in Guinea, I watched children buy single cigarettes at the same shacks where they purchased food: hard-boiled eggs, bread cut to order, powdered milk packets, tea leaves by the gram, hard candy by the piece, tomato paste by the tablespoonful and Maggi stock cubes. Errand boys ran groceries for Mom and cigarettes for Dad, making shopping a gateway activity.
Nearly half of the world’s children regularly breathe second-hand smoke in public places, and two in five have at least one smoking parent. Among Cambodian, Thai, Senegalese, Filipino and Vietnamese, three in five children live in smoking homes, while in Belarus, Indonesia and Timor-Leste, it’s four in five. Southeast Asians suffer disproportionately from second-hand smoke.
By age 15, many boys in developing countries have become smokers, but years can pass before their health deteriorates. Tobacco smoke contains 4,000 chemicals, including 50 carcinogens and another 200 lesser toxins. In Timor-Leste, fully half of all boys between ages 13 and 15 smoke. Among Belarusians, it’s one in three. But boys aren’t the only ones at risk; substantially more Brazilian girls than boys smoke.
Mothers who smoke often deliver babies prematurely or with lower birth weights, and exposure to second-hand smoke causes one in four sudden infant deaths.
Globally, tobacco consumption is on the rise, and so are its opportunity costs. Tobacco’s direct costs to Thailand could fund the country’s energy services. In Mexico, treatment of tobacco-related illness accounts for one in 10 health care dollars.
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills up to half its users. Every six seconds, tobacco takes a life. Every minute of every day, two die in high-income nations, and eight more die in developing countries.
ChildFund works in the world’s second, third and fourth largest tobacco-producing countries: Brazil, India and the United States. Indonesia also ranks in the top ten and, during the past decade, Mozambique, Zambia and Cambodia have experienced the greatest increases in tobacco production. In low-income countries, tobacco contributes to deforestation and supplants food crops. And it’s inefficient; agricultural land yields up to 15 times tobacco’s weight in edibles, which contributes to high rates of malnutrition.
Tobacco plants, like coca and opium, also are biohazards. Children often work in the fields, topping and harvesting green tobacco leaves covered with dew and raindrops. In the heat, that coating of water dissolves nicotine from the leaves. The nicotine solution can cross the skin barrier and pass into the bloodstream, causing acute poisoning. A day’s worth of absorbed nicotine is equivalent to smoking anywhere from 12 to 50 cigarettes.
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