Up in SmokeSince 1966, when the U.S. Surgeon General first printed a caveat on cigarette packages, the numbers of smokers have steadily declined. The message—“Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health”—was ambivalent compared to later versions.

In 1970, the label was updated to: “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health”.

By 1985, it highlighted specific illnesses caused by smoking: “Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy”.

Despite this alarming advisory, Asian Pacific Islander communities still produce disproportionate numbers of smokers. With October designated ‘Healthy Lung Month’ it’s a perfect time to kick the habit.

According to Elaine Ishihara, Director of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Against Tobacco (APICAT), statistics for Washington state indicate smoking prevalence rates decreased from 22 percent to 15.3 percent over five years, but among communities of color it remained consistent.

If data is segregated by ethnicity and gender, API’s are at 12 percent with Vietnamese and Cambodian men making up 38 percent of that. Chinese men also have high rates.

Chan Saelee, a Youth Chemical Dependency Counselor at Asian Counseling Referral Service (ACRS), believes smoking is cultural among older adults, a habit picked up during their youth.

“If you go to any party, you’ll see a lot of older adults smoking,” he explains. “It has a big influence on teenagers or pre-teens who might see that as a grown up thing to do.”

His clients cite “youth stress” as their primary reason for smoking—saying it helps them cope with school, money and family.

Although he stops short of calling it a class matter, Saelee sees many young smokers hailing from Seattle’s south end where their lower-income parents—who tend to smoke–expect them to help out financially by working while going to school.

Like Saelee, Ishihara thinks cultural aspects make tobacco socially acceptable, especially for immigrant populations and their children.

“In the Cambodian community, they use cigarettes as a way of ceremony, as a wedding gift,” she states. “Socially, if you’re offered a cigarette and you refuse, it’s…rude.” And, she adds, for families concerned about employment and housing, smoking prevention is not a priority.

She faults the industry for targeting youth and urban communities of color. Since the FDA enacted stringent anti-smoking laws, and most states banned smoking in bars and restaurants, tobacco companies have developed new products that appeal to young urbanites.

Disinterested in older adults, they pursue youngsters that become addicted early and use their products longer. Ishihara says marketers have turned to hip-hop culture and YouTube, funding music festivals and car giveaways to reach their demographic.

The industry also offers ‘mom and pop’ stores money to advertise their products. A photo project last year monitored various neighborhoods to determine where tobacco products were sold.

“Within four blocks in the International District, there were eight places that sold cigarettes or tobacco products, compared to Madison Park that had a very limited amount,” complains Ishihara.

As for kicking the habit, ACRS provides cessation programs that shun full abstinence in favor of counseling and offering alternatives for stress relief.

For Ishihara, it’s about education and engaging the community by providing resources to non-English speakers in their own language published in their own newspapers. Currently, the Quit Line commercials are all in English.

APICAT also distributes a health booklet through a Vietnamese temple group and publishes articles in Vietnamese. Because the materials are circulated through the temple, they have credibility.

To reach youths, APICAT funds a paddling club, promotes healthy lifestyles through exercise, sponsors events and contests with anti-tobacco messages, sells t-shirts, and hosts an annual hip-hop function at a tobacco-free venue.


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