Khut Sam Ol, a 21-year-old monk at Samrong Andet pagoda in Phnom Penh, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for five years.
But after a one-week training course that taught him smoking cigarettes would turn his lungs black and could cause cancer, he has decided to quit.
“I know I have an addiction problem, but I have the will to quit,” he said.
Khut Sam Ol is one of 83 monks and nuns at Samrong Andet who recently took part in the “Khmer Quit Now” program, organized by the Adventists Development and Relief Agency, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Religion.
Samrong Andet is the second pagoda that has declared itself smoke-free as part of the program. Thirty-four monks at Bakong pagoda in Siem Reap quit smoking in October 1998.
ADRA’s strategy is to focus on monks, teachers and health experts who can set a good example for other Cambodians.
But Yel Daravuth, manager of ADRA’s “Tobacco or Health” program, knows he has a difficult task ahead.
Of 19 pagodas where ADRA has conducted smoking cessation programs since 1998, only two have declared themselves smoke free.
A survey conducted by ADRA in 1999 showed 66 percent of men living in urban areas smoke. Past surveys showed more than 80 percent of those living in rural areas smoke. According to a 1998 survey, Cambodia consumes 380 million packs of cigarettes per year.
Most of the country’s top leaders smoke, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had promised that he would quit smoking after he had his first grandchild. But earlier this month after his granddaughter was born, he said he would only change cigarette brands, from 555s to Ara.
“When I give up smoking, I do not know what will happen,” Hun Sen said. “I think that I will be sick in bed.”
Po Samnang, head of the technical bureau at the National Center for Health Promotion, which is working with ADRA, also noted that it’s been difficult to obtain funding for tobacco-oriented programs because of other pressing needs.
“We have a lot of immediate priorities, like malaria and HIV,” Po Samnang said. “We want to start a smokers’ quitting clinic, but so far we don’t have money.”
And for many of the 80 percent of Cambodians living in rural areas, taking up smoking is initially a matter of health and comfort, Yel Daravuth said.
Farmers working in the fields or those who don’t have mosquito nets use tobacco smoke to keep insects away.
Pheap Chantha, a 35-year-old beggar living in Phnom Penh, has been smoking for 20 years and has no intention to quit.
“If I have no cigarettes, I can’t be patient,” he said. “When I can’t smoke, I can’t eat and I don’t feel well.”
Even young children, most of whom are street kids, have taken up smoking because of peer pressure or learning about the habit from adults.
Five-year-old Pen Neang spends most days hanging out with about a dozen friends at Wat Phnom. They pass the time by kicking flip-flops and smoking.
“I smoke every day when I have money,” Pen Neang said. “Sometimes I steal cigarettes from my father or I ask foreigners to give me some.”
ADRA does follow-up visits every few months to see if program participants have been able to stay tobacco free. After one year, about 20 percent of the more than 1,700 program participants returned to smoking.
Khat Rin, a 49-year-old nun at Samrong Andet, said she used to chew tobacco for many years, but now she knows she has been consuming poison.
Kea Mony Cheat, a 23-year-old monk at Samrong Andet decided to quit smoking after 10 years. After all, he said, Buddhist monks are supposed take care of personal hygiene as well as the hygiene of society.
“I appeal to all monks in Cambodia who have yet to study cigarette smoking to please come study about how smoking affects life,” he said. “We could lose a lot of money, and destroy our environment and our lives.”
Po Samnang said he hopes Hun Sen and other leaders will have enough will power to quit like Khat Rin and Kea Mony Cheat.
“When we bring in experts on the dangers of smoking, we will have them meet with the prime minister,” he said.