Asian Americans & Smoking: A Silent Epidemic

As I go through pharmacy school and learn about all the different diseases that people go through, I’ve been particularly interested in seeing how these diseases affect Asian Americans, including how smoking tobacco has affected us. Personally, it’s affected me as many of my older relatives have died from lung cancer or other cancers that were made worse because of their tobacco addiction. Both of my ex-partner’s parents died from lung cancer and had chronic tobacco addictions even as they were suffering from different diseases that were directly a result of their smoking.

As it turns out, smoking is on the rise in many Asian countries and among Asian Americans as well. According to an article in the Northwest Asian Weekly published last week, the World Health Organization reports that China and Korea’s smoking rates are 67%, with a majority of the male population smoking in both countries. Tobacco Atlas is a great site that chronicles tobacco use prevalence in different countries.

Even though the American Lung Association reported that only 9% of the Asian American population smokes, it’s been thought that this is a gross underestimation, as many tobacco questionnaires are only given in English and Spanish and thus many monolingual Asian Americans aren’t being asked about their tobacco use.

Even more surprising is that 96% of respondents of a Chinese study on tobacco didn’t know that it can cause heart disease. Given that American Big Tobacco is now actively promoting tobacco use in developing countries by associating being American with smoking, it’s not a surprise that tobacco has become more and more popular in Asia. UCSF’s Tobacco Papers, which are archives of released documents by tobacco companies detailing marketing strategies, chronicles this in pretty shocking detail, especially since Big Tobacco has successfully forced many underdeveloped countries who want to attain Most Favored Country Status with the United States in terms of trade to begin allowing American Big Tobacco to sell their products in these countries.

So how would we start to reduce tobacco use in Asia and among Asian Americans? Trying to successfully break the connection between American-ness and smoking in these countries would be a great start. Actively educating both populations, especially those who are monolingual, that tobacco use is related to poor health outcomes, such as cancer, increased risk of heart disease, etc. is another way. Designing studies that detail tobacco use within these monolingual populations could also be used to create culturally appropriate ways to stop and prevent smoking.

Personally, I wanted to use this example of an old man that I would see in front of my ex’s favorite dim sum restaurant. Despite that he clearly had trouble breathing, lost all his teeth, and was essentially at death’s door, he would constantly yell at random people in Cantonese for cigarettes, until one day, he disappeared. It’s a sad case in how even when people are clearly suffering from diseases caused by tobacco that they still crave it.

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Author: Efren

Efren is a 30-something queer Filipino American guy living in San Francisco. In the past, he was a wanna-be academic even teaching in Asian American studies at San Francisco State, a wanna-be queer rights and HIV activist, and he used to "blog" when that meant spewing one's college student angst using a text editor on a terminal screen to write in a BBS or usenet back in the early 90s. For all his railing against the model minority myth, he's realized he's done something only a few people can claim--getting into UCSF twice, once for a PhD program in medical sociology which he left; and then for pharmacy school, where he'll be a member of the class of '13. He apologizes profusely for setting the bar unintentionally high for his cousins. blog twitter