In comparison to developed countries, Mongolia seems to be going backwards in terms of tobacco consumption. Although, according to the World Health Organization(WHO), we’re not alone. Nearly 80 per-cent of the world’s one billion smokers live in low and middle-income countries. This is contrasted by a very steep decline in tobacco consumption in developed countries. For instance, smoking rates in the United States dropped from 42 per-
cent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2012. As of 2013, the smoking rate was 26.8 percent in Mongolia. However this number does not tell the whole story. Studies show that 49.1 percent, or roughly half of all Mongolian men, smoke tobacco regularly, whereas only 5.3 percent of women smoke regularly. What are the reasons for this gap? How dangerous is smoking to the future of our country?
Mongolia has one of the highest number of male smokers in the world. In order to find out why, we need to look back at the declining rate of tobacco consumption in developed countries. As fewer and fewer people regularly use tobacco in more developed countries, the world’s largest tobacco companies (such as Philip Morris International) shift their focus to developing countries like Mongolia. This, coupled with less than ideal enforcement of tobacco laws, makes tobacco use in Mongolia an epidemic. The loose enforcement allows children to have access to tobacco products, which means they are more likely to smoke as adults.
The question of the gender gap also arises: Why are men more likely to smoke than women? It is not a slight gap between the genders, it is a chasm. The reason for this has been mostly attributed to cultural standards. In Asian countries, specifically Mongolia, tobacco is seen to be a more masculine thing. This can also be more logically explained with different perceptions about health among men and women. It has been long studied and reported that women have longer life expectancies. Numerous studies, including one conducted by Harvard Medical School, show that behaviors like smoking are a big factor in that life expectancy differential. Tobacco has been identified as a contributing factor to the largest number of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the leading cause of death in the country.
The dangerous amount of pollution in the city does not help either. According to atmospheric scientist Christa Hasenkopf, breathing the city air over the course of 12 months is equivalent to living in a home with somebody who smokes 60 cigarettes a day. This air quality epidemic largely affects the most economically vulnerable groups in UB. Since pollution is most rampant in the lower income areas of UB, and smoking is more prevalent in lower income groups, it does not bode well for their long-term health. Smoking does only affect men, but their whole families. Secondhand smoke kills more than 600,000 people a year. Pollution and secondhand smoke are the hardest on young children and elderly people.
The problems tobacco poses for low income families are not only health related. A smoker in Mongolia would have to spend 2.7 percent of the national median income to purchase 10 of the cheapest cigarettes to smoke each day. This can add up to substantial amounts of money, which could have been otherwise spent on daily necessities.
The problems with smoking do not seem to be a lack of awareness about its risks, but awareness can always be improved. The overall understanding of tobacco consumption risks has become better as people have begun to actively advocate against it. However, general knowledge of the harms of tobacco is limited. Many people focus on lung dis-
eases, specifically lung cancer, when thinking about the effects of tobacco use. What many Mongolians do not realize are the other consequences of smoking, such as gum disease, which has been proven to increase the risk of developing heart disease.
As mentioned earlier, the ease of access to tobacco coupled with neutral or positive perceptions and a high smoking rate among adults can push more children towards tobacco use. Boys from the ages of 13 to 15 have a 20.3 percent rate of smoking, while 8.3 percent of girls in the same age category report having tried tobacco. The rate amongst girls is higher than the rate among adult women. This is an alarming sign for increased rates of smoking.
Even though laws prohibit the sale of tobacco to anyone under the age of 21, the law is hardly enforced. The sale of single cigarettes is also prohibited, yet many small stores continue to sell them individually. This is not to say the government isn’t doing anything. Warning labels on cigarette and tobacco packaging is a big step forward in trying to combat tobacco use. Advertisement for tobacco is illegal and enforced relatively well. The 2013 law banning public smoking was another large step taken by the government. However, trying to combat large tobacco companies can be an insurmountable task for developing countries like ours. The combined revenues of the world’s six largest tobacco companies in 2013 were 342 billion USD, 97 percent larger than the GDP of Mongolia. This gives tobacco companies the power to disregard the actions of small states trying to combat tobacco consumption. The use of lobbying is commonplace in order to loosen up restrictions.
Going back to the gap in tobacco use by gender, trends like this can have a larger impact on a country, including national security. It would be hyperbolic to say that smoking directly affects Mongolia’s national security, but looking at long term trends – including a seven year gap between life expectancies for men and women – and factoring in the gap in consumption, we’re seeing alarming trends.
What all of this shows us is that the key to stopping the tobacco epidemic is cutting consumption by men. Adult men have the highest rate of smoking, and this can have a major effect on other groups. The normalization of tobacco can lead more children to smoking, and second-hand smoke is harmful to everyone. As cliche as it sounds, awareness seems to be important. Perceptions of tobacco need to be changed, and more people need to be educated on the health risks it can cause. Doing that, while simultaneously working to further combat tobacco use with legislation, can have a significant impact.