Cigarette-smoking is widespread in Vietnam, which has one of the world's highest male smoking rates and where cigarettes are widely available at small streetside kiosks. According to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) there are currently 15.3 million smokers in Vietnam. Some 47.4 percent of adult males smoke. Tobacco kills 40,000 people per year in Vietnam and that figure is expected to rise to 70,000 per year by 2030, according to local media reports. [Source: AFP, June 18, 2012]

In the 1990s nearly three fourths of Vietnamese men smoked, one of the highest rates in the world. At that time: adult men who smoked: 73 percent (compared to 26 percent in the United States). The rate of smoking rose from 144 cigarettes per person a year in 1980 to 518 per person a year in 1996. Adult women who smoked: 4 percent (compared to 24 percent in the United States). This is one of the lowest rates in the world. Women smokers are considered prostitutes in Vietnam. [Source: Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1996]

Vietnamese smokers on average spend more on cigarettes than they do on health care and education. It is common to see teenagers and even small boys lighting up. The tobacco industry provides 100,000 jobs and taxes that make up 6 percent of the government revenues.

Men in rural areas also like to relax with large traditional pipes made of bamboo filled with strong tobacco. According to Vietnamtourism. com: Vietnamese "enjoy the habits of chewing betel, smoking water pipes and cigarettes, drinking tea, and eating ordinary rice... For women, betel can initiate various feminine conversation, but for men, thuoc lao [string tobacco] is related to their joyfulness as well as the sadness in their lives. Peasants always carry their dieu cay (pipe for smoking while ploughing the rice fields).

Local brands of cigarettes like Tourism, Souvenir, ERA, Globe, Memory, White Horse and Everest sell for as little as 15 cents a pack. Even that is expensive for a lot of Vietnamese, who roll their own or use pipes. Two thirds of the foreign cigarettes sold are smuggled in from Thailand, Cambodia or Laos. Counterfeits are thought to originate in China.

WHO: Smoking Claims 30,000 to 40,000 Lives Annually in Vietnam

In 2004, AFP reported: "Smoking claims 30,000 to 40,000 lives in Vietnam every year and costs the country hundreds of millions of dollars in treatment for sick smokers, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. "Between 30,000 and 40,000 people are killed by tobacco use every year. This is expected to increase to 48,000 to 67,000 in 2023," a WHO study revealed Friday. Vietnam has one of the highest male smoking rates in the world with more than 56 percent of men smoking, it said. Social pressures against a habit seen as unfeminine is considered responsible for only 1.8 percent of women smoking. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 26, 2004]

"The report also showed that households with smokers in Vietnam spend three times more money on tobacco than on education and healthcare. A 1997 Vietnam health ministry survey found that 50 percent of men and 3.4 percent of women smoke. The government has banned all forms of tobacco promotion and advertising at sporting and cultural events, as well as smoking at schools, in a bid to discourage the habit among young people. Every year millions of cigarettes are smuggled into the country through neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

"WHO's study underlines the link between tobacco addiction and poverty. "Close to 60 percent of the total cigarettes smoked and 75 percent of smokers are from developing countries," it said. "The poor tend to use more tobacco than the wealthier, and they suffer heavier health and economic burdens." The organization said that if nothing was done to curb the level of smoking it could kill more people in Vietnam in 2030 than AIDS , tuberculosis, road accidents and suicides combined.

Vietnam Law Bans Smoking in Public

In June 2012, AFP reported: "Vietnam has passed a law banning smoking in public places and all tobacco advertising, an official said. The law, passed by 440 out of 468 national assembly deputies, also makes it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under 18 years old, said the parliamentary official. Smoking in public places — including schools, hospitals, office buildings and on public transport — was banned once already in 2010 by a government decree, which also raised tax on tobacco and restricted the sale of cigarettes. But that order was widely ignored, with smoking in public places widespread and cigarettes available at small kiosks on nearly every street in the capital Hanoi. [Source: AFP, June 18, 2012 ]

"The anti-smoking campaign group SEATCA welcomed the new law -- the full text of which has not yet been released -- saying it was a "historic and important milestone" for the country. "We are very happy about this development," SEATCA director Bungon Ritthiphakdee said, adding that the final version of the law was strong and in line with the WHO-Framework Convention on Tobacco Control."

In 2009, AFP reported: "Vietnam will ban smoking in indoor public places next year and raise tobacco taxes to curb demand for cigarettes, the government said in a statement seen on Tuesday. Smoking will be illegal in schools, kindergartens, cinemas, office buildings and on public transport, said a statement posted on the government's website.The statement did not say whether indoor restaurants would be included in the ban, which will take effect on January 1. Tariffs on tobacco products and imported cigarettes will be raised, but the government did not specify by how much. Retail sales of cigarettes will be allowed only in certain locations and a ban on selling cigarettes to people under 18 will be more rigorously applied, the government said. "[Source: AFP, August 24, 2009]

In April 2005, Associated Press reported: "For the first time, Vietnam will impose fines on smoking in public places and selling cigarettes to minors. Under the decision signed by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, people who smoke at indoor public places such as trains or bus stations, libraries, and theaters face fines of up to 100,000 dong (US$6.3), Nguyen Ngoc Khang, General Secretary of National Program for Reduction of Cigarettes' Harm, said Tuesday. [Source: Associated Press, April 12, 2005]

Those who sell cigarettes to people under the age of 16 face similar penalties. The rules take effect later this month. In 2000, the government imposed a ban on smoking at indoor public places and the sale of cigarettes to minors, but there was not penalty levied on the violations, Khang said. "The move was to effectively enforce the ban and thus ensure the health of non-smokers," he said. According to a national survey conducted in 1997, some 50 percent of Vietnamese men smoke while only 3.4 percent of women did. Khang said a recent survey showed that smoking in working places and in cities was declining while smoking among the rural population was on the rise.

Betel Nut in Vietnam

Betel nut is very popular in Vietnam. Betel (areca) nut is a mildly narcotic seed that comes from the areca palm (“Areca catechu”). It has been used for thousands of years in India, South Asia, China, and Southeast Asia. Lots of women in Vietnam chew betel nut. Men chew it too but generally it is regarded as a women’s thing. Many old women have blackened teeth.

According to Vietnamese legends, chewing quids of betel and areca has been a custom since the Hung Vuong period (3rd millennium B.C.) and is connected to the antique legend of betel and areca. A quid of betel, also called trau, is composed of four elements: an areca leaf (sweet taste), betel bark (hot taste), a chay root (bitter taste), and hydrated lime (pungent taste). The custom of chewing betel nut is unique to Vietnam. Old health books claim that "chewing betel and areca nut makes the mouth fragrant, decreases bad tempers, and makes digesting food easy". A quid of betel makes people become closer and more openhearted. At any wedding ceremony, there must be a dish of betel and areca nut, which people can share as they enjoy the special occasion. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism]

Thomas J. Zumbroich wrote: Evidence for the earliest use of areca nut in mainland Southeast Asia in fact points to two different cultural complexes with different linguistic affiliations in Vietnam. One of them is the Dong Son culture centered on the Red River delta in northern Vietnam. It reached its classical phase around the middle of the last millennium B.C. Dentitions ranging in age from 3000 to 1700 before present from a Dong Son site in Nui Nap] have been subjected to further analyses.Three quarters of the assessed individuals displayed some dark-reddish stains on their teeth. One maxillary incisor dated 2400 to 2000 before present was examined with scanning electron microscopy which showed changes in surface morphology consistent with deliberate etching. Mass spectrometrical analysis of the actual stain material on the same tooth showed some identical mass fragments between the stain and areca nut extract, but no alkaloids specific to A. catechu L. were detectable in the stain. This study tentatively supports that areca nut was known to the inhabitants of Nui Nap and was used in the context of teeth dyeing (after a process of etching) and hence probably was also chewed casually. Betel chewing in pre-Dong Son Metal cultures of North Vietnam (Phung Nguyen and Dong Dau cultures), with dates as early as the first half of the second millennnium B.C., has been proposed but the validity of these claims cannot be assessed for lack of documentation. [Source: Thomas J. Zumbroich, “The origin and diffusion of betel chewing: a synthesis of evidence from South Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond,” Journal of Indian Medicine, 2008]

The most explicit association of the native inhabitants of the Red River Delta with betel chewing comes from the exploration of early Chinese texts. Based on information gathered in the course of the Chinese attack of northern Vietnam during the Qin dynasty (221 to 207 B.C.) the people of the kingdom of Van-Lang were known to habitually chew betel and to exchange areca nut and betel leaf as part of wedding rituals. Chinese sources noticed their black teeth and assumed they were a natural consequence of betel chewing.

The most explicit association of the native inhabitants of the Red River Delta with betel chewing comes from the exploration of early Chinese texts. Based on information gathered in the course of the Chinese attack of northern Vietnam during the Qin dynasty (221 to 207 B.C.) the people of the kingdom of Van-Lang were known to habitually chew betel and to exchange areca nut and betel leaf as part of wedding rituals. Chinese sources noticed their black teeth and assumed they were a natural consequence of betel chewing.

Betel Nut Culture in Vietnam

During festivals or Tet Holidays, betel and areca nut is used for inviting visitors and making acquaintances. Sharing a quid of betel with an old friend is like expressing gratitude for the relationship. A quid of betel and areca nut makes people feel warm on cold winters days, and during funerals it relieves sadness. Betel and areca nuts are also used in offerings. When Vietnamese people worship their ancestors, betel and areca nut must be present at the altar. Nowadays, the custom of chewing betel remains popular in some Vietnamese villages and among the old. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism]

In Vietnam, betel nut is such an ingrained symbol of love and marriage that in Vietnamese the phrase "matters of betel and areca" is synonymous with marriage. The tradition of sharing and chewing betel nuts is the opening act of discussion between the groom's parents and the bride's parents about the young couple's marriage. Leaves and juices are also part of the traditional Vietnamese wedding ceremony. A folk tale about the Vietnamese betel nut chewing says the combination of areca nut and the betel leaf are inseparable like an ideal husband and wife.. [Source: Wikipedia]

Thomas J. Zumbroich wrote: In Vietnam a rich tradition of folktales about betel chewing has been preserved across different ethnic groups. The folktale, Tân lang truy n, ‘The Story of Tan [and] Lang’ or ‘The Story of the Areca Palm Tree’, is the most widely known among the ethnic Viet. This tale about the origin of the betel quid has been integrated into the legendary dynastic histories of the eighteen Hung Kings which, according to one chronology, ruled northern Vietnam between 2879 and 258 B.C. [Source: Thomas J. Zumbroich, “The origin and diffusion of betel chewing: a synthesis of evidence from South Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond,” Journal of Indian Medicine, 2008]

Around 2000 B.C. a romantic tragedy involving the love of a young women for one of twin brothers is said to have transformed the two brothers into the first areca nut tree and a limestone. These were subsequently both encircled by the mourning woman which had turned into a vine of betel pepper. Upon hearing about these events the ruler, King Hung-Vuong IV, decreed that forthwith the combination of areca nut, lime and betel leaf be chewed in his kingdom as a symbol of filial and conjugal affection.This contextualization gave betel as an important part of the Vietnamese cultural inventory an ancient origin and a mythological, quasi-historical etiology. Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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