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Perspectives on death

The New Straits Times, September 30, 2001

By Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

AS the world witnessed the two aircraft bursting into flames when they crashed into New York's World Trade Center towers on Sept 11, countless people experienced a sense of unbearable loss as the majestic towers crumbled before their eyes.

But if the New York tragedy had taken place some decades ago, before instant broadcasting, almost certainly the world would not have reacted as spontaneously as it did. Seeing truly is believing.

Now let's imagine similar plane crashes in the early 1920s in a faraway place, and let's say it was radioed that hundreds of people had died, and that many more suffered in agony and misery for the remainder of their lives. There are no real-time images to back the news up.

Surely, the responses would have been subdued, no matter how real the tragedies and sufferings.

Such seems to be the case when we are repeatedly warned of the fatal consequences of smoking. In spite of being told, time and again, that millions suffer and die every year, much of the response remains muted, although the number of lives lost daily easily matches a plane crash. Very few are impressed with such comparisons, just because cigarette-related deaths are deemed not as "eventful".

Still, to use the analogy of a plane crash to drive home the number of people dying of smoking-related illness is apt.

In fact, the number of dead is similar to multiple plane crashes daily, worldwide. Like the victims of plane crashes, smoking deaths are no less senseless, no less agonising, and no less violent. Yet there seems to be no urgency about preventing these deaths compared to the trouble taken to prevent planes crashes.

Thus by 2020, the number of tobacco-related deaths will approach 10 million. For the next 20 years then, thousands of planes will crash every single day, killing all their passengers, including hundreds of thousands of Malaysians, men, women, children; young and old.

The question then must be asked. Why is so little effort made to save lives at risk in this way? Isn't the life of our citizens worth saving at all, no matter what the cause? On the contrary, Malaysians can freely use the agent of death, as cigarettes are openly sold. They are even encouraged to do so. Most of the time the poison is creatively promoted via indirect advertising. Worse still, it is grown as a cash crop for national revenue, at the expense of the health of the citizens.

There are a dismally small number of token attempts to get rid of the potential cause of death, but nowhere near as serious as action to prevent airline disasters. It is almost as though we deliberately allow passengers to carry packs of explosives (read: cigarette) that will eventually kill everyone on board. It is mind-boggling. Why must this continue to be so? Today as we acknowledge the second World Heart Day with the theme "A Heart for Life", it serves as a reminder to all that smoking violates this theme.

Smoking is well known to take life away by damaging the heart. In fact, smokers must not only care about their hearts by quitting, but also of others as cigarette smoke could also induce fatal heart disease among non-smokers.

As we ponder this sombre fact, the number of people who died from smoking today is bound to have exceeded the numbers that died in the New York and Washington tragedies combined.

Thus, as much as the perpetrators of the New York tragedy must be condemned, so too should the perpetrators and peddlers of the cigarette-related tragedy.

But sad to say, until today there has been no nationwide no condemnation of the latter tragedy, no vigil nor mourning, no memorial prayers, no flags at half-mast and, seemingly, no anger as Malaysians die of tobacco-related diseases. It is business as usual.

As the toll rises, one thing seems to be missing, images of death frightening enough to bring the nation to its senses, and commit people to some form of comprehensive actions against smoking and tobacco products.

Until this is done the horrific images of the New York tragedy could represent the violence tobacco-related products are perpetuating on innocent people.

Recommended site: http://www.worldheartday.com

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