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LETTER | As the world gears up to celebrate World Children’s Day on Nov 20, 2023, under the poignant theme, “Investing in our future means investing in our children,” it is essential to spotlight a pressing concern.

The escalating trend of smoking and vaping among our youth is an immediate threat we must confront head-on.

According to Dr Siti Idayu Hasan, a tobacco control researcher from the Nicotine Addiction Research and Collaborating Group (NARCC) and an impact officer at Universiti Malaya Community Engagement Centre (UMCares), much like our current generational endgame efforts - the vision to eliminate smoking in the next generation - we must focus our resources, not just on battling the tobacco giants of today but also on the vaping industries that stealthily target our children.

The latest data from Malaysia provides compelling evidence of this public health threat. A significant percentage of Malaysian teenagers are now experimenting with, if not addicted to, smoking or vaping.

The current percentage of 13-17-year-olds who smoke stands at 6.2 percent, down from 13.8 percent in 2017. While this decrease is a positive sign, we still have a challenging journey ahead.

While we once worried about the traditional cigarette, today’s enemy has evolved, with e-cigarettes (also known as vape) now becoming the fashionable norm among the young.

Masked under the pretence of being “safer” and “trendier,” these devices have entrapped our children. A staggering 14.9 percent of teenagers have experimented with or regularly use vapes, a sharp rise from 9.8 percent in 2017.

More alarming, vaping is twice as prevalent among teenage boys as smoking, and for teenage girls, this figure is nearly fourfold.

Siti Idayu also said that if we are to truly invest in our children, our efforts must go beyond short-term solutions. The generational endgame strategy, which aims to phase out tobacco and smoking products and create a smoke-free generation, must be a shared vision among parents, educators, lawmakers, and the community at large.

According to Associate Professor Dr Nur Amani Ahmad Tajuddin, a family medicine specialist and deputy coordinator of NARCC, Universiti Malaya, we must work together with parents and teachers to curb the habit of vaping, as vaping in schools is a huge concern among educators.

What is more worrying, many parents are still ignorant or perceive vaping as a safer alternative to smoking and do not stop this behaviour from their children.

Our children and adolescents are a vulnerable group easily influenced by their peers or adults to embark on smoking and e-cigarettes. Their curiosity may lead them to early exposure to cigarettes or e-cigarettes, harming their physical and mental health in the process.

Infants, children, and adolescents could also be exposed to second-hand or third-hand smoke via their parents or immediate family members, and this also applies to e-cigarettes.

Parents who smoke in the car even when the car’s windows are own also pose a high risk to their children.

Children and infants are more prone to the detrimental effects of cigarette smoke such as middle-ear infection, recurrent lung infection, poorly controlled asthma, learning difficulties, poor growth development, attention disorders, poor school performance, poor sports performance, and sudden infant death syndrome.

Nicotine is found in conventional cigarettes and almost all e-cigarette products, which will cause addiction in the developing brain of children and adolescents.

Nicotine as the primary substance contributing to addiction has strong evidence as a gateway to illicit substance abuse, which is very dangerous to their physical and mental health, and their future.

Nicotine has also been shown to cause premature ageing of the skin, increased heart rate leading to high blood pressure, cancers of the larynx, throat, and lungs, increased risk of gastric problems, pancreas, and stomach cancers, as well as diabetes and stroke.

Flavourings, additives, and colourings in e-cigarettes are also harmful, as e-juices have more than 200 chemical constituents. Studies have also shown that e-cigarettes cause a decline in sports performances by reducing lung capacity, thus leading to problems such as obesity, whereby as we know, Malaysia has the highest rate of obesity already in Southeast Asia.

Smoking and vaping have been linked to anxiety and depression among children and adolescents which can lead to functional impairment, learning difficulties, poor academic performance, social problems, and drug abuse.

E-cigarette products have also exploded, causing permanent physical damage to users as well as poisoning young children who accidentally consume the e-cigarette juice, thus advocating for a stop to all methods of smoking is a must at this point in time and in the future.

Our schools must be equipped to discuss the dangers of smoking and vaping. It is time to go beyond the textbook and incorporate interactive sessions, real-life stories, and peer-led discussions.

As parents, it is our duty to guide our children. Open discussion about the dangers of smoking and vaping, combined with our own positive role modelling, can make a difference.

We too, as parents, must be wary and alert of the social media content our children and teenagers are exposed to, as e-cigarettes are irresponsibly and openly being advertised on those platforms, mainly to entice children and teenagers to become a new generation of smokers to replace of those dying from the effects of smoking.

Our children and teenagers have easy access to e-cigarettes, especially after nicotine has been delisted from the Poisons Act on April 1, 2023.

Although there are notices saying cigarettes and vaping products are only to be sold to people 18 years and above, teenagers can access them at various vendors without their identification being verified.

Our lawmakers must strengthen laws on tobacco and vaping product sales, especially to minors. Strict penalties for vendors who break these rules are crucial. The Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023 needs to be passed as soon as possible.

Community and school-based programmes can play an instrumental role in reshaping perceptions about smoking and vaping. Grassroots efforts that emphasise the dangers and offer support for those trying to quit can make a considerable difference. Local communities should be involved in protecting their young members from these hazards.

As World Children’s Day is approaching, let us renew our commitment to our children’s future. The theme “Investing in our future means investing in our children” is not just a slogan; it’s a call to action.

Smoking and vaping are equally dangerous to the wellbeing and health of our offspring. We are the protectors of our children and to truly invest in them, we must ensure they are equipped with knowledge, support, and the resilience to say “NO” to smoking and vaping.

Let us rally together for the sake of our children and the generations to come and bring about the generational endgame against smoking and vaping.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

NAHRIZUL ADIB KADRI is an associate professor in Universiti Malaya’s faculty of engineering.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.