LOS ANGELES – Filipino-American Rico Foz was only seven years old when he was first exposed to an environment of smoking.
His father was a smoker who worked for a tobacco company.
Often, Rico would be asked by his dad to buy cigarettes at the store.
With very little knowledge on the habit’s negative impact on the health, Rico’s father was a little careless when exposing his children to smoking.
Because of this exposure, it was inevitable that he would learn to smoke at a young age.
“My dad used to ask me to light a cigarette for him after meals,” Rico recounted. “As a habit, I started when I was in high school, circa 1980. From then on, I had been a smoker.”
Association with fellow smokers and easy access to cigarettes made it difficult for Rico to quit the habit.
A few years prior to his emigration to the US in 1999, his father died of cancer. Rico, nevertheless, continued to smoke.
With tobacco being one of the products of the Philippines, it was common for Rico’s Filipino friends to bring back reams of cigarettes, every time they went on a vacation to the motherland.
In 2007, Rico was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). According to his doctor, smoking was one of GERD’s risk factors. Because of this Rico was advised to quit smoking right away.
However, Rico wouldn’t just quit. He was a rationalizing man. For him, merely being told that it will kill him wasn’t enough to convince him.
“We all die someday anyway,” he kept telling himself.
“I knew smoking was bad, but I didn’t have proof it caused GERD,” Rico said, “So I kept smoking.”
It took cancer to make Rico give up smoking. In 2011, he was diagnosed with the early stages of esophageal cancer. Rico had to undergo surgery in order to rid himself of the cancer. Because he was uninsured at the time, he had to use his family’s savings to pay for the medical bills.
It was rock bottom for Rico and his family. With Rico’s wife having to quit her job to take care of him, both breadwinners for the family were left unemployed – with two children still left to feed.
Luckily, Rico was able to recover. Now 47 years old, Rico vowed to never smoke again. He even admitted that the mere smell of cigarette smoke makes him feel sick.
Among Filipinos, smoking-related illnesses are easily taken for granted because of our culture leniency towards smoking and smoking habits. It is ingrained in our culture to tolerate smoking, especially among men, because it is seen as a “cool” or “manly” thing to do.
In a study on prevalence of smoking among Chinese and Filipino-American adults, findings noted that smoking rates among Filipinos are higher than most other ethnic groups. Among Filipinos, 24 percent currently smoke, the study found.
Meanwhile there were less incidence of smoking among non-Hispanic whites (19 percent), Hispanics (20 percent), and African Americans (22 percent).
According to Asian Pacific Partners for Empowerment, Advocacy, and Leadership (APPEAL) executive director Rod Lew, these numbers demonstrate a disturbing fact: Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders (NHPI) are likely to use tobacco and tobacco products, and then suffer health consequences.
For Filipinos in particular, cultural norms are a big factor, Lew said. Like in the case of Rico, Filipinos and Asian Americans grow up in an atmosphere where smoking is allowed – even encouraged. Lew also pointed out that tobacco companies even influence Asian markets to smoke by portraying the habit as cool in advertising campaigns.
Some Filipinos, Lew said, take with them these cultural norms and smoking habits when they migrate to the US. And given that almost 70 percent of all Asian Americans are born outside of the US, these habits in the Asian countries can have a profound effect on smoking rates among Asian Americans, Lew added.
Part of APPEAL’s work is advocating against smoking, and bringing to light the health risks it poses.
In a 2004 study that looked at cancer incidence and mortality in California from 1988-2001, it was found that among Filipinos, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths.
These deaths are preventable, Lew pointed out. He also noted that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death for all groups, including all Asian Americans. And APPEAL is working hard to make a big change for Asian Americans and NHPI communities in this regard.
“Focusing on teaching young people the dangers of smoking is critical,” Lew said.
Nearly all of daily smokers were found to have tried their first cigarette as minors or young adults. Reducing minors’ access to cigarettes, Lew said, is important in preventing tobacco-related diseases, and death.
“As parents, we need to teach our children about the dangers of tobacco addiction, as well as set a good example by not smoking ourselves.”