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Culture, stress and the media fuel smoking in South Asian men

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by Cancer Research UK | News

1 May 2003

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Macho images in Bollywood films, along with cultural traditions and stress may be helping fuel the smoking epidemic among South Asian men in the UK, a new report reveals.

In the study, funded by Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health, researchers found Bangladeshi and Pakistani men view smoking as a normal part of being a man – an idea reinforced by Asian films, culture and social norms.

Tradition and religion were felt to be important influences on smoking behaviour in South Asians and men in the community often cited stress, due to working long hours, as the reason for smoking.

Experts at Cancer Research UK believe understanding the factors behind smoking in South Asian men will be crucial in helping prevent the habit – which is more common in Bangladeshi men than in any other ethnic group in the UK.

Study author Dr Martin White, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Newcastle says: “Cancers of the trachea, lung and bronchus are the commonest cause of cancer deaths among South Asian men living in Britain and a major preventable problem for the UK’s male population as a whole.

“Around half the UK’s Bangladeshi men smoke cigarettes. When compared with their white counterparts, Bangladeshi men have a 20 per cent higher rate of smoking. In public health terms it’s vital that we understand why so many more of these men smoke and develop culturally sensitive ways to work with this community.”

Researchers recruited and trained 13 bi-lingual South Asian men and women from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne with the skills to carry out one to one interviews and hold focus groups with members of their community on smoking behaviour.

Over two years, around 140 Bangladeshi and Pakistani male and female, smokers and non-smokers, whose ages ranged from 19 to 80, took part in the project.

Researchers found smoking was a strong part of social acceptance, bonding and identity in South Asian men. This idea was reinforced by fashionable images of smoking in Indian films and popular media.

In contrast, it was not considered acceptable for South Asian women to smoke and many believed it was shameful and disrespectful.

Dr White says: “Bollywood films, which are popular among the UK’s South Asians, often show their leading men with a cigarette in their hand as did the Hollywood films of the forties and fifties.”

“If the handsome hero is the one seen lighting up in these films, it gives smoking a positive image – and one that can affect those watching.”

Religion was found to have conflicting influence on people’s smoking habits. While the Muslim religion does not specifically ban tobacco it prohibits intoxicants or addictions. Some participants in the study said they felt they were not addicted to or intoxicated by tobacco. Others felt that smoking did not fit comfortably with the Islamic faith.

Dr White says: “There were conflicting views on whether it was religiously acceptable for Muslim men to smoke. Working closely with religious leaders in the future should help us to put across the health risks and addictiveness of tobacco smoking.”

Researchers also found that it was more acceptable for the older generation, particularly the male elders, to smoke. For younger South Asians, smoking was seen to be disrespectful and peer-pressure and rebellion – as with white teenagers – had a strong influence on starting smoking.

Dr White says: “We found some similarities with smoking behaviour in white populations but there were important differences, particularly in relation to people’s gender and religion.”

Jean King, Director of Tobacco Control at Cancer Research UK says: “This study has unpacked the culture of tobacco smoking in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, which is vital if we are to develop ways to help reduce the high smoking and cancer rates in South Asian men.

“Currently ethnic minority groups are not given sufficient consideration in national smoking cessation policy and we hope this study can help change that in the future.”