Oman's parents call for a smoking ban

Some parents suggest the government also put up advertisements in popular places warning of health hazards to discourage youngsters.

MUSCAT // Omani parents are urging the government to ban smoking in public places, saying the move will discourage young people from taking up the habit. Oman has already banned cigarette advertisements but parents now want to stop people lighting up in shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants.

"These are the places where youngsters hang around a lot. Seeing grown-ups lighting up a cigarette out in the open is a bad influence on children," Talib al Kindy, 37, a civil servant and father, said. The majority of parents spend an average of eight hours a week in shopping malls in the capital, according to the Muscat-based shopping watchdog Retail Research Survey. Families spend about a third of that time in food courts, the other third in game arcades and the rest shopping.

"When my family and I are at the food court, I don't want anyone dangling a cigarette in full view of my children. It is also bad to see smokers puffing away in hotels, where one enjoys listening to music while having coffee," Rose Almeida, 28, an Indian resident who works with a shipping company, said. Some parents in Muscat are planning to write to their Shura Council representatives urging them to press on with the total smoking ban in public places. In Oman, for the law to take effect, the Shura Council, an 83-member elected assembly, must propose it to the cabinet of ministers.

"That is what we elect the Shura Council members for and we expect them to work hard to make the ban a reality for the sake of our children," Amer al Siyahi, 43, a businessman, said. He also called for a smoking ban on educational campuses as well. "I see teachers and staff of colleges and universities, even schools, smoking in the playgrounds and other open areas of the campuses, not really caring about the welfare of their students," Mr al Siyahi said.

Children as young as 12 smoke in Muscat, according to observers, often when they hang out at the beach, parking spaces and even in fast-food restaurants. "I know it is not a widespread phenomenon yet but we see an increasing number of youngsters smoking in public places," said Khalid Saif, 29, a manager at a fast-food restaurant in Muscat. "A total public smoking ban will help, so children will not have any stereotypes to follow and the ones who smoke will stop."

But smokers disagree, saying that children smoke because of peer pressure, stress and lack of parental guidance. "Children smoke because they copy their peers and [because of] their inability of coping with stress at not doing well at school or just because some parents smoke themselves. To ban smoking in public places will not help and is not related to the problem," Akilesh Mohan, a marketing executive for Capital Financial, said.

Some parents suggested that, apart from public bans, the government must also post advertisements in the popular areas, where youngsters hang around warning smokers about the health hazards. "Such a comprehensive nationwide campaign, targeting smokers, will send a clear message to children, who have either started the habit or are thinking of taking it up, that smoking ruins lives," said Waheeba Shizawi, who balances her work at a bank with bringing up her three children.

Parents who did not want to be identified said it was difficult to make their teenage children stop smoking, a habit they pick up at schools. "It is a pity the government doesn't do anything about teachers and staff of educational institutions smoking in the premises. My 17-year-old son has been smoking for a year and it is hard to make him stop. He picked up the habit from his school and the education ministry must act tough on this problem," one parent said.

Education ministry officials were not available for comment. Medical experts, who have come across young patients with breathing problems associated with smoking, agreed. "At least once in three months I see teenagers, some as young as 15, with smoking related problems. With no parents present, they admit smoking at least 10 cigarettes a day. Such campaigns will be very helpful," said Dr Mahfoodh al Rawahi, a general practitioner at the government-run Royal Hospital, said.

A marketing manager of a cigarette distributing company, who did not want to be named, said street posters and a ban on smoking in public places would not stop youngsters from smoking. "It is television programmes like MTV and movies that make them smoke. They see their Hollywood heroes puffing away and they think it is cool," he said. A 16-year-old boy, who identified himself only as Mohammed, said: "I know smoking is bad and I have tried many times to stop but failed. Do I need help? I think I do but how do I get it?"

Dr al Rawahi said Mohammed had a point, and the government must create a programme to help people of all ages who need the help to beat not just smoking but even drugs. "These campaign posters we talk about should not only create awareness but provide phone numbers for them to get help," Dr al Rawahi said.