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Singapore Moves to Turn Off Shisha Smokers

A brochure from Singapore’s Health Promotion Board aims to drive home the point that shisha smoking has the same health risks as cigarette smoking, including cancer. (ST/HPB Photo)

brochure from Singapore’s Health Promotion Board aims to drive home the point that shisha smoking has the same health risks as cigarette smoking, including cancer. (ST/HPB Photo)


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Singapore. Every three months, Singaporean Collette Claire Miles, 20, meets a few friends at a shisha cafe in Kampong Glam’s Haji Lane in Singapore. There they puff on fruit-flavored tobacco from a shared mouthpiece for an hour or so, in between chats.

The polytechnic graduate, who first smoked shisha when she was 15, said: “They are all my friends, so I trust they are not sick.”

But viruses could abound in the mouthpiece, exposing users to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza, said the Health Promotion Board (HPB). Furthermore, shisha cafes do not regularly wash their equipment, it added.

HPB wants shisha smokers like Miles to know these facts about the Middle Eastern practice of inhaling tobacco smoke that is passed through water, via its new campaign starting tomorrow.

It is banking on the “ick” factor to turn off some shisha smokers who may not bother about the main reason that it is bad: It has the same health risks as cigarette smoking, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease.

From Friday till April 6, SingTel mobile phone subscribers who come within 1km of shisha hot spot Kampong Glam will receive a multimedia message in the form of an 18-second video.

In it, a man called Tony urges them to “draw deeply on the hose, that will give them a better chance of catching TB or whatever virus that may be left behind by the person before you’.” The video ends by directing viewers to a nine-minute clip which will bring home the dangers of shisha smoking.

Tomorrow, young people in bright yellow T-shirts will distribute flyers against the practice in Kampong Glam.

The campaign launch coincides with the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health at Suntec Singapore, which ends on Saturday.

Though it is not known how many people in Singapore have taken up shisha smoking, there were 44 such cafes in January, up from a single one in 2002. Most are in the Kampong Glam area.

HPB is targeting a shisha hot spot for the first time. Previously, it concentrated its outreach efforts on secondary schools and polytechnics.

It is worried about young people’s mistaken belief, highlighted in focus groups, that shisha smoking is a safe alternative to cigarette smoking due to its fruity smell and lack of tobacco aftertaste, said Dr K. Vijaya, director of HPB’s youth health division.

Another worry is that the number of smokers has grown, from an-all time low of 12.6 per cent of the population in 2004, to 14.3 per cent in 2010. The habit is most prevalent among young adults in the 18 to 39 age group.

This campaign comes after the ban on lighting up was extended to more public areas earlier this month.

Five shisha cafe operators interviewed yesterday think the campaign will not hit their business hard, as less than 10 per cent of their customers smoke shisha.

One of them, Shima Haqeem, 29, said offering shisha is not lucrative, but her cafe does so to retain customers.

“When a big group of 15 to 20 people come and one or two of them ask if we offer shisha, we lose the whole group to other cafes if we reply no.”

When shown the anti-shisha brochure, technician Mohamad Razali, 38, who smokes shisha daily at Kampong Glam after work, was unfazed.

He knows it is bad for health but said: “If I get a disease from shisha smoking, then what can I do?”

He and two shisha cafe operators said that the only way to make people stop shisha smoking is to ban the practice.

But Miles, who had been unaware that shisha smoking had so many adverse health effects, made an immediate decision to quit after reading the brochure.

Four public hospitals with smoking cessation programs have not had patients who seek help to quit shisha smoking.

But smoking tobacco in any form — even shisha smoking which is seen as a social rather than addictive habit — puts one at risk of adverse health consequences, said Associate Professor Loo Chian Min, the head and senior consultant at the department of respiratory and critical care medicine at Singapore General Hospital.

Psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow, who runs a private clinic, warned that former smokers who use shisha, even infrequently, put themselves in danger of relapsing.

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