PETALING JAYA: There may not be as many teenage female smokers in Malaysia compared with males, but their numbers are still worrying.
While 13- to 15-year-old male smokers have been decreasing in numbers over the past two decades, their female counterparts have risen slightly in number.
According to the Tobacco Atlas, over one in three (36.3%) male teens in this age group were smokers in 2003.
In comparison, only 4.2% of similarly-aged female teens were smokers.
The next survey conducted in 2009 reported that the number of 13- to 15-year-old Malaysian boys who smoked had declined to 30.9%.
However, the number of girls who smoked in that age group rose to 5.3%.
This percentage of early teen female smokers remained at 5.3% eight years later.
But the same survey found that the number of early teen male smokers had further gone down to 22.4%, or one in four to five boys.
While the decrease in young male smokers is good, the steady percentage of young female smokers is of concern.
In addition, the 2016 Tobacco and Electronic Cigarette Survey among Malaysian Adolescents (Tecma) found that nearly four out of five (78.7%) adolescent smokers had their first cigarette before the age of 14.
This represents a challenge to the tobacco generational endgame (GEG) included in the proposed Tobacco and Smoking Control Act.
The Bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament in July.
The GEG is aimed at banning the sale of tobacco and vape products to those born after 2005 and prevents future generations from ever starting to smoke, while not affecting existing smokers.
“It’s going to be difficult to wean the aged 18 and below group off, but it can be done, provided we have smoking cessation programmes in place that can support them being kept off in the long run,” said National Cancer Society Malaysia medical director Dr M. Murallitharan.
A 2012 study in the BMJ Open medical journal found that school textbooks had limited potential in preventing tobacco use among students in grades one to nine (seven to 15 years old).
Firstly, of the 474 textbooks from multiple developing countries, only 9% had descriptions on tobacco use.
And of those, the majority focused on the consequences of such use, i.e. death and diseases.
“They instil fear in the young students, but unfortunately, children at that age cannot relate to death and diseases,” said Tobacco Free Generation International founder Dr Koong Heng Nung.
The tobacco-free generation (TFG) concept works on the premise that once you have a proper educational ecosystem in place for tobacco prevention, teenagers will voluntarily say no to tobacco products.
“If you’re an ideal youth who is learning about TFG, you would want to stand up and look out for your friends, instead of listening to me telling you about death and diseases from smoking.
“We need to get the quiet group to see the power of a cohort to a positive effect; then we can be united together in combating smoking,” said the Singapore-based surgeon.