As countries across the globe recognise World No Tobacco Day, we question whether it is not time to shift the focus to World No Smoking Day.
For while the anti-tobacco advocates have been successful at significantly cutting the number of people smoking cigarettes from the heydays, the tobacco void has been effectively replaced by the ever pervasive marijuana spliffs and joints, electronic cigarettes, and increasingly popular cigars.
Just as the tobacco companies successfully marketed cigarettes as “cool” with “Virginia Slims” for women with the “tough guys” in the movies always smoking a cigarette, weed users have employed an equally successful underground, counter culture campaign to make weed “cool”.
We must also note that marijuana spliffs are often supplemented with unprocessed tobacco, and thus, all those weed smokers are also tobacco smokers.
The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) is the regional public health body located in Trinidad and Tobago and headed by Barbadian public health expert Dr Joy St John, as its executive director.
Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders, when they established the organisation in 2011, envisaged this body would provide support “surveillance, prevention, promotion and control of important public health problems in the region”.
In the regional entity’s message to mark World No Tobacco Day, CARPHA stated: “Of all the forms of tobacco use, the most common in the Caribbean region is cigarette smoking. Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. Using other tobacco products such as cigars or pipes also increases the risk for this disease.
“Second-hand smoke exposure causes stroke, lung cancer, and coronary heart disease in adults; and acute respiratory infections and severe asthma in children.”
What does the medical profession say about smoking marijuana, especially the drug that is commercially grown or manufactured to ensure high levels of the addictive THC or Tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis?
Smoking marijuana harms more than just the lungs and respiratory system—it also affects the immune system and the body’s ability to fight disease, especially when the immune system is weakened and also impacts brain function.
The American Lung Association says it is “concerned about the health impacts of marijuana use, especially on lung health” and cautions the public against smoking marijuana because of the risks it poses to the lungs.
As Barbadians, we too are troubled and it is our concerted belief that marijuana use and its concomitant activities including criminal behaviour such as trafficking, gun smuggling, gang activity, and violence as traders/pushers seek to protect their “territories and goods”, are all contributing to a major public health emergency.
We call on Governments across the region to add their voices to the push against weed smoking.
We recognise that many governments and leaders across the region will find themselves conflicted because it is difficult to reconcile an anti-weed smoking public health stand, while at the same time pushing a very lucrative medicinal marijuana industry.
At the end of the day, one has to consider the future social and health consequences of this weed smoking trend.
One cannot drive for more than 15 minutes in Barbados without encountering groups of predominantly young men huddled on corners and up against galvanized palings smoking weed and lamenting how “the system” has been unfair to them.
Let us not be fooled into believing that this is a poor people’s problem. Use of marijuana, which costs way more than the highly taxed tobacco cigarettes, is being widely used in all strata of society – rich, poor, middle-class, young and middle aged, white, black and Indian/Asian.
Heavy marijuana use causes psychosis symptoms such as paranoid delusions, hallucinations, detachment from reality and unusual changes in behaviour. Importantly, these are not even the worst-case behaviours.
Quoting Dr Heather Armstrong, head, chronic disease and injury, the CARPHA statement added: “At CARPHA, we believe that reducing the harm caused by tobacco use requires a collective approach, where government, civil society, and the individual play a critical role.”
We completely agree with Dr Armstrong, however, we say cast your focus also on the smoking of marijuana. It is an epidemic occurring right under our noses and in plain sight.
We need to take our heads out of the sand and confront this exploding problem or we will reap the consequences sooner rather than later.