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Can Hun Sen Help Cambodia Quit Smoking?

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, smokes as he sits with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, left, and Finance Minister Keat Chhun, right, during the inauguration of the China-funded construction of a bridge in Mouk Kampoul district, Kandal province, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Phnom Pen, Cambodia, file photo.

Tobacco, which causes cancer of the lungs and other forms of the deadly disease, is a serious health problem in Cambodia.

Not content with his own success in giving up smoking, Prime Minister Hun Sen wants the rest of Cambodia to kick the nicotine habit too.

The long-serving leader announced with much pride back in 2014 that he had managed finally to kick the habit that he picked up as a young soldier.

“After joining the army, I become a smoker. I smoked at that time in order to reduce my intensity while I was working, and to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes and insects,” Hun Sen said in a Jan. 28 Facebook post, reminiscing about the 1970s, when he fought in Cambodia’s jungles for the Khmer Rouge.

“Then the smoke started to taste good and it was addictive. After that, I suppose, I was a smoker.”

The post was characteristic of a Hun Sen’s new public relations approach, which has seen him replace hours-long strongman diatribes with friendly updates about the comings and goings of Cambodia’s prime minister and first family.

He is now using Facebook to launch a sort of public health campaign, urging his followers, and all his countrymen, to extinguish their last cigarette.

“In this post I’m asking my Cambodian people to quit smoking, especially youth,” the Facebook post read, this part in English. “I used to be a heavy smoker for more than 40 years. I’ve tried 12 times to quit smoking. Finally, I quitted smoking about 22 months now [sic].

“I hope Cambodian people can do it for their own health.”

Tobacco, which causes cancer of the lungs and other forms of the deadly disease, is a serious health problem in Cambodia. About 10,000 deaths a year can be attributed to smoking or chewing tobacco, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). That means that, on average, more than 28 people in the country die each day for their habit.

One of those feeling the effects of this scourge is Meach Sokhoeun, 49. She doesn’t smoke, but expends large quantities of her energy worrying about her husband Sar Kimso, a one-pack-a-day smoker.

She’s already convinced him to cut down from two or three packs daily, but stopping completely has proven difficult, despite a doctor warning him more than a decade ago that he may have lung disease.

“I told him to stop, but he won’t stop. He can stop for several months, but then he starts smoking even more,” she said, adding that the impact on the health of 73-year-old Kimso—who started smoking at 13—was visible.

“I want him to quit because he has this white skin on his head like dandruff. His legs and arms are all covered with itchy skin, like he has a skin disease…. His teeth are decayed.”

Then there’s the financial cost. Sokhoeun said her husband gets 300,000 riel, or about $74, each month as an armed forces veteran. But 4,000 riel per day, or about 120,000 for the month, is spent on Kimso’s smoking habit.

In Cambodia, very little tax is levied on cigarettes, making smoking comparatively cheap. Still, the adult population manages to spend more than $200 million a year on tobacco products, according to Dr. Yel Daravuth, a national professional officer with the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative.

Alongside the well-known health problems linked with smoking, Dr. Daravuth said some Cambodians spend about 10 percent of their income on the habit.

“We’ve seen that it’s economically damaging to families, as well as to the nation,” he said.

But other countries have managed to reduce significantly the number of smokers. Dr. Daravuth said practical measures like raising taxes on cigarettes, restricting the areas in which smoking is permitted, and promoting awareness of the dangers of smoking could all help more Cambodians to quit.

Critics point out that while Hun Sen has made an appeal on social media to the nation to stop smoking, he has not attempted to introduce any of the measures that have been proven to work elsewhere.

Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based think tank Future Forum, said the prime minister could take practical action if he truly wants to make Cambodia a smoke-free nation.

Hun Sen has personally been at the top of Cambodian politics since the 1980s, and wields almost absolute power over the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen is the president of the ruling party. The ruling party has the most seats in the National Assembly. If the prime minister wants to help reduce smoking, he could do so in many ways,” said Ou Virak.

“First, they shouldn’t allow [cigarette] advertisements on billboards, TV, radio or elsewhere,” he said, adding that tax increases and awareness raising—beyond social media—were also well within Hun Sen’s grasp. “The prime minister has enough power to do so, if he wants.”

Among the other legacies of years of having Hun Sen in charge of Cambodia are the country’s wide gap between the rich and the poor, with many people living around or just above the poverty line. Hun Sen and many senior government officials, meanwhile, can afford to travel to Singapore for regular health checks.

The prime minister also went to his Facebook page to let people know about such a visit last month, posting photos of himself in an expensive-looking medical facility, being subjected to high-tech tests. (He was able to report back to this followers that he had been given a clean bill of health).

But most Cambodians cannot afford to take such precautions with their health, let alone pay for treatment at a domestic private clinic or hospital if they do fall ill. Most of the Cambodians who do become ill from smoking have to rely on a poorly funded government health service that is riddled with corruption.

Thirty-two year old Heng Vann makes his living from scavenging on the streets of Phnom Penh. He earns about 20,000 riel, or $5, each day, and must use that money to take care of his wife and two children.

Vanna has been smoking since he was 15, and cannot bring himself to stop, despite several quitting attempts.

“Now I smoke from one-and-a-half packs to two packs a day,” he said, adding that the habit consumed about one-fifth of his entire income.

However, he said, the prime minister’s message about smoking had provided some inspiration, and he would try to quit once again, or at least cut down.

“I’ll try to take just four or five cigarettes per day, and I’ll try to keep busy with other things,” he said, hopefully. “Then I’ll get tired and I won’t think about smoking.”