YOUNG SMOKER: Many kids in rural areas puffing away at a very young age.

THE Malaysian Government spent no less than RM8mil on the Tak Nak Merokok campaign – a nationwide anti-smoking drive from 2004 to last year.

Initiated by former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, it was the biggest anti-smoking campaign ever carried out in the country with a fat budget and a singular aim – to reduce the number of smokers.

Given the extensive campaign, many among us expected good results of seeing people staying away from the menace, especially the younger generation.

Sadly, however, the habit remains a common phenomenon, including among children in some parts of Sarawak’s rural areas.

During a recent visit to Long Tanyit, the remotest Penan longhouse along Linau River, a tributary of the Balui River in Belaga district, I was shocked to find even children as young as five puffing away openly.

I was at the longhouse with a group of volunteers to bring aid to another Penan longhouse nearby, Long Kajang, which was recently razed by a fire. Long Kajang is a small settlement of roughly 200 people.

Long Tanyit, is only 40km away from the Malaysia-Indonesia border

The children were puffing in full view of everyone in the longhouse, including their parents. The same scenario was witnessed at the first Penan longhouse we visited, Long Tanyit, where we spent a night the day before.

The cigarettes were not the normal ones bought from the shelves but the traditional roll-your-own type stuffed with home-grown tobacco known as jakok, lukok or sigup among the Orang Ulu community.

Even more baffling was the sight of a mother who eagerly distributed cigarettes, offered to her by members of our team as a courtesy, to the children as though they were sweets.

It was a rare sight indeed – obviously not one I had encountered before. I managed to take a couple of shots and a few seconds of video recording of girls aged between five to six and a boy puffing in front of everybody, including their parents.

“Come on, don’t take their photos,” Micheal Jok, our group leader politely reprimanded me, and insisted we should respect their privacy.

Smoking is common among Malaysians, but seeing the kids picking up the habit, I felt a sense of responsibility to tell them “it is a bad habit, bad for your health.”

Sometime in May this year, there was an international uproar when a video of a three-year-old Indonesian toddler named Ardi Rizal puffing cigarettes was uploaded on Youtube. I cannot imagine how Malaysians will react upon seeing these young Malaysians smoking.

SMOKING PARENTS: Smoking is ‘culturally accepted norms’ among the Penan, particularly in, remote rural areas of Sarawak.

I was told that smoking was a norm among the Penans and some other Orang Ulu communities. It is regarded as part of their culture.

“They smoke for two reasons – their culture, and to scare away mosquitoes when they go into the jungle,” said Micheal Jok, who is an Orang Ulu from Long Bangan in Belaga.

He said it was considered as rude if one were to tell the Orang Ulu that smoking jakok was bad.

Punan National Association president Sayang Kavang said, for their community, smoking was a deeply-embedded way of life.

“We offer our guests smokes instead of drinks. We also bury our departed loved ones with lots of cigarettes. They are used in our rituals of healing and in almost everything else that we do in our daily life,” he explained.

Alex, who grew up with a Penan family and maintains regular contact with them, said the culture held true particularly for the Penan in Belaga district and the Kayan in general.

“If you want to know what gift to take with you when visiting a Penan longhouse, you don’t have to think much. Just think of cigarettes,” he said.

Alex said that the smoking of jakok, lukok or sigup among children was considered as normal by the community as it was generally believed that, unlike real cigarettes, it did not pose any health problems.

Dr Rosliza Abdul Manaf

However, Dr Rosliza Abdul Manaf, a public health physician and senior medical lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in Universiti Putra Malaysia, said this was a gross misconception.

“How can tobacco rolled in nipah, banana leaves and other leaves with no filter as in cigarettes be less harmful?” she asked.

She said the roll-your-own type without a filter could be more hazardous as all the contents of the smoke once inhaled would directly enter the lungs.

Dr Rosliza, who did her masters thesis on casual smoking by young women, said that roll-your-own smokers tended to develop a greater addiction.

“This is because they do not have a standard amount of tobacco in each stick. They can easily increase the tobacco content in their sigup,” she explained.

Sayang said that the eradication of smoking among the Orang Ulu was not just challenging but culturally sensitive as well, adding that this should not be an excuse for the Punan to continue smoking.

He suggested that the relevant bodies come up with a tailored campaign targeting these people in rural areas.

An aggressive campaign to create greater awareness is needed, he said.

Sayang, who hails from Punan Ba in Belaga, said: “You can’t tell an 80-year-old smoker who has been smoking during his entire life that it can kill him.”

“They simply won’t understand the argument,” he said.

“Let’s educate their young ones, if we can, on the dangers of smoking,” he added.

Dr Rosliza said it was everyone’s responsibility to educate people and disseminate the right information.

“The risk that sigup, jakok and lukok smokers are exposed to is similar to that of cigarette smokers,” she added.

“Lung cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, oral cancer, gangrene and impotence are all caused by tar and nicotine found in tobacco,” she said.

She admitted, however, that there still was a lack of local research on roll-your-own tobacco.

This story was also published by The Star