Health officials are renewing their efforts to encourage villagers in southern Syria to stop smoking following the initial success of a pilot project in the area. Almost a third of those who had initially given up smoking had started again.
Although largely successful, the programme to combat smoking, run by the Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO), needs to be monitored closely, health officials say.
According to the officials, around 90 percent of the 4,200 inhabitants of Akraba village, in the Dar'a governorate, 100 km south of the capital Damascus, had stopped smoking. This followed campaigns run since 1996, to raise villagers’ awareness of the dangers of smoking through the Healthy Villages Programme (HVP).
“In 1997, Akraba village received an award from WHO for efforts to stop smoking. In addition, the names of those who quit smoking were written on a plaque placed in the Akraba information centre,” Dr Faisal Mheisen, Field Coordinator of the HVP in Dar'a, told IRIN from Akraba.
However, it was noticed recently that about 30 percent of non-smokers had taken up the habit again.
“Despite holding seminars to raise the villagers’ awareness regarding the illnesses that smoking causes, a number of Akraba inhabitants are addicted to cigarettes and find it very difficult to quit this unhealthy habit,” Mheisen said.
“Giving up smoking needs self-control and I am still facing temptation to slip up and smoke. As you know, temptations are hard to resist. For example, I am used to having a cup of Turkish coffee with a cigarette, or when I get nervous,” Sabah a villager from Akraba told IRIN.
"We are continuously and intensively holding seminars in the village to enhance villagers’ awareness and keep them away from giving in to the temporary urge and to enjoy life without cigarettes," Mheisen stressed.
Although there are no statistics on smoking related deaths in Syria, some 30 percent of the total population smoke. For this reason no effort has been spared and posters saying ‘Eliminate smoking, otherwise it will kill you’, can be seen in the streets of the village.
During health seminars, villagers are offered helpful tips and are urged to think about why they started the habit in the first place. They are also encouraged to avoid things that trigger their urge to smoke such as restaurants and drinking.
"After the session, we tell them all to choose a day to quit smoking all at once and not to cut down smoking gradually and eat nuts and chew gum as substitutes for smoking," he added.
Dr Adnan Sweidan, coordinator of the project in Dar'a, told IRIN that anxiety, tension, prestige, especially for women, imitation, and peer group pressure were the main reasons for people smoking.
Officials said a number of measures contributed to making the no smoking project a success. These included the use of religious leaders in mosques and churches making announcements about how unhealthy the habit is, as well as legislation issued in 1996 prohibiting the advertising of tobacco throughout the country.
Smokers who have managed to quit are trying to encourage others in the village to do the same.
“When I saw those who are around me suffering from illnesses caused by smoking, I decided to stop smoking. But after a while I slipped up and went back to smoking," Mohammad Mustafa al-Refaei, from Akraba, told IRIN by telephone. "I tried three times to quit smoking and eventually with support from the project and my family I made it,” he added.
But others are not so convinced. “I found it impossible to keep my commitment to stop smoking. I think such infrequent smoking will not pose a significant risk to my health,” Abdul Razak Khairullah Nuaimi, told IRIN by telephone.
“I have been smoking at least one pack a day for 25 years. After all, we will all die one day no matter what we do,” Bassam Mustafa al-Refaei, told IRIN from Akraba.
The HVP relies on society taking initiatives themselves to tackle all kinds of issues such as poverty and healthcare. One of the components of the programme is promoting healthy life styles, which covers combating smoking, drugs and alcohol addiction, as well as bad dietary habits.
The project to stop smoking has so far only been implemented in Akraba village, because of a lack of funds. But organisers say they would like to start up in other areas of the country.
“There are 6,000 villages across Syria and it is difficult to turn all villages into healthy ones because this needs funds and a very large number of employees,” Yasin Shoukr, WHO Technical Officer, told IRIN in Damascus.
"If we concentrate on specific healthy villages, this will positively affect other villages. Consequently, the concept of healthy villages will be automatically spread amongst villages throughout the country," Shoukr added.