Looking for a smoke-free Vietnamese community

EDUCATION: A new ad campaign will use celebrities to target a culture characterized by heavy tobacco use.

By VIK JOLLY The Orange County [CA] Register June 11, 1999

Nam Dinh's father offered him his first smoke at 18 a rite of passage into adulthood, a symbol of maturity among men in Vietnam.

For many years, Dinh wouldn't drink a cup of coffee without lighting up, also a habit among many Vietnamese.

Despite his powerful cultural inducement to smoke, Dinh, now 42, sat Thursday in the patio at the Mai Hien Tay cafe in Little Saigon, nicotine-free for about 15 years.

An anti-smoking ad campaign launched Thursday aims to foster such restraint among other Vietnamese-Americans, especially men, who are among the heaviest smokers in California.

And for the first time, someone they know is delivering message: Vietnamese radio personalities, musicians and other celebrities will be in half of the ads.

"We thought it would be effective to put our anti-tobacco message in the mouths of celebrities," said Chris Jenkins, director of the Vietnamese Community Health Promotion Project at the University of California, San Francisco. "Having their voices in these messages will set a new trend of a smoke-free Vietnamese community."

At 73 percent, Vietnam has the highest reported rate of male smokers in the world, he said. About a million Vietnamese live in America, with the largest concentration about 250,000 in Orange County.

"So they bring this habit with them," Jenkins said. "Smoking has worked its way into the culture. Men are expected to offer a cigarette to another friend when they meet."

Health educators hope that ads like the one in which rap artist Henry Chuc gets dumped by a date when he tries to light a cigarette will resonate with television viewers.

"We think that they'll hear (the messages) better when entertainers say it than when we say it," Jenkins said.

The 14 ads will be funded with $40,000 generated by Proposition 99, a 25 cent-per-pack tax passed by voters in 1989. They will appear in Vietnamese newspapers and on television through mid-2001.

A 1997 survey of Vietnamese-American smokers in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles and Orange counties will be used as a benchmark to gauge the effectiveness of the campaign. Another survey is planned for September and then again at the end of the ad campaign.

Radio was excluded from the campaign in part for lack of funds, but will be considered in the future, Jenkins said.

While other anti-smoking campaigns have contributed to reducing the number of Vietnamese smokers in the Bay area from 56 percent in 1987 to 35 percent in 1996, the number has remained constant since then, Jenkins said.

Among all men in California, 21 percent smoke. Today, an estimated 46,000 Vietnamese men in California are believed to be smokers, and unless they quit, half will die from smoking-related ailments and another quarter will die prematurely, Jenkins said.

"We think we're down to hard-core, addicted smokers now," Jenkins said. Health concerns also are shifting to Vietnamese-American girls and young women. While only 1 percent currently smoke, educators expect that figure to rise, possibly to the overall California women's smoking rate of 16 percent.

"After living here a while, they adapt and take up the traits," Jenkins said. "What that means is that the rate among men should come down and women should go up."

The combined effect of state laws, tobacco bills and other anti-smoking measures should help turn the tide, he said.

Some, like Dinh, now a staunch smoking foe, think that it's up to women in the community to tell the men to quit for health reasons. He said a depiction of ordinary people worn down physically by smoking might have a bigger effect on the public.

Dinh said musicians should quit writing lyrics that romanticize smoking, and radio personalities should stop smoking and become role models.

The postal worker from Fullerton quit smoking for health reasons and because he wanted to save money. The former Vietnamese-language school teacher and father of a 7-year-old girl wanted to set a good example.

"You are the one who controls (smoking)," Dinh said. "You've got to convince your friends to do it too. It's about time for the entire community to wake up. Everyone is responsible for putting an end to it," he said.

At a nearby table at the Mai Hien Tay cafe, Phap Nguyen, 37, was smoking a Marlboro, while his twin sons, Donald and Daniel, 3, were playing on the patio with "Star Wars" taser toys.

Nguyen has been lighting up for 20 years.

"It's in my culture," he said, smiling. "Everybody knows it's not good. I'm just kind of used to it."

The Santa Ana man is ambivalent about whether the new anti-tobacco campaign will pay off. Will he allow his twin sons and an older sibling, Kevin, 6, to smoke?

"It's their choice," he said.