While the days of people chain-smoking in hospital corridors and public buses may be long gone, Turkey is not entirely "smoke-free." Smoking addiction causes diseases that kill thousands in the country every year, making it the primary target of governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
On Feb. 9, marked as World Smoking Cessation Day in Turkey, new programs and campaigns were launched to stub out the habit. The Health Ministry also revealed the success of its existing programs, which provide medical assistance and psychiatric counseling to support people as they quit.
Smoking was banned at all indoor venues in 2008 in a revolutionary step for the country that gave rise to the term “smoking like a Turk.” Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a staunch opponent of the habit, the country managed to curb smoking rates significantly, however, figures show that more than 15 million people still smoke across the nation. Apart from the indoor smoking ban, the government implements all other options at its disposal to eradicate the addiction, from offering free treatment to addicts to placing steep taxes on tobacco products.
The Presidency's Directorate of Communications launched a new campaign on Wednesday titled “Quit Smoking, Start Changing in 48 hours” geared towards the youth. The awareness campaign – amplified by videos, social media content and billboards – seeks to draw smokers' attention to the first 48 hours after quitting smoking. This is the period in which smokers experience the first positive physical effects of quitting, including an improved sense of taste and smell.
Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said in a written statement that raising awareness about the issue was now more important than ever given the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted people to live healthier lifestyles. Altun listed President Erdoğan’s continual efforts to tackle the issue and said the Turkish Presidency, Health Ministry and all relevant public agencies were working efficiently in the fight against tobacco use. A video used in the campaign urges smokers to quit the habit and begin a new life. “If you think about it, try drinking milk, water, eat fruit, exercise or call a friend instead,” the campaign’s slogan says.
The Health Ministry also runs a hotline for addicts, which, according to figures quoted by Anadolu Agency (AA), helped 40% of callers kick the habit last year. The hotline is linked to smoking cessation clinics set up across the country in the fight against smoking. The extent of the caller's addiction is tested before they are provided with individually tailored strategies to quit. Specialists guide them throughout the process, especially on methods to overcome nicotine deprivation, and staunch addicts are directed to clinics. Health care crews monitor addicts for one year to help and motivate them throughout the process. Last year, some 700,000 people called the hotline.
On Wednesday, the ministry also launched a new program in which volunteers can help addicts. Volunteers will be trained in how to best communicate with addicts and inform them about the dangers of addiction and passive smoking. The program will also award volunteers and addicts who quit smoking.
Also on Wednesday, the Green Crescent Society (Yeşilay), a prominent NGO that provides assistance to people battling addictions of all types, introduced its new app “Bırakabilirsin” (You can give it up). The app gives users access to professional help and enables them to plan a timetable to kick the habit and monitor their progress.
Introducing the app at an event in Istanbul, Green Crescent head Mücahit Öztürk said the app will mainly serve as “motivation” for people considering quitting. “The app gives them a live support service and applicants can also make in-person appointments at our centers for services to help them quit smoking,” he said.
Efforts are crucial for the country where more than 15 million people are smokers, according to Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) figures from 2019. The rate of smokers rose to 28% in 2019, from 26.5% in 2016 – with 52.9% of males between the ages of 35 and 44 smoking daily according to official figures, while the figure for women stood at 24.1%. Figures by World Health Organization (WHO) show 31% of fatalities among men in Turkey stem from diseases caused by smoking while this rate is 12% for women. Every year, around 83,000 people die of illnesses linked to smoking.
Professor Mustafa Aydın, who heads the Fight Against Smoking Association, says about 25,000 people die every year in the country due to passive smoking. “People spend about $20 billion on cigarettes every year. This is a great amount that, unfortunately, people waste to ruin their own lives, their future,” he told AA. Aydın highlighted that the majority of people who smoke started at a very young age. “We have to explain the downside of smoking to our youth, children. It is easy to start smoking but quitting it is very difficult,” he said.
Aydın commends the progress in the fight, noting that the number of smokers has considerably dropped, compared to 32 million in 1997 when their association was founded. “But this is not enough. We have to work harder until the cigarettes disappear from the Earth. Cigarette cartels resort to every method to endear people to their products. They use films, music videos, theater plays, seeking to make the habit appear cool, especially among the youth,” he warned.