KUALA LUMPUR: Remember the picture of national footballer Safee Sali smoking at a coffee shop in Singapore last year?
This was just two days before Malaysia played hosts Singapore in an AFF Cup Group B match. The picture went viral and he got off with just a warning.
Recently, some athletes paid a heavier price for the same offence.
The Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Incheon Asian Games organisers fined the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) about RM150,000 for various offenses, including smoking and vandalism by the national athletes.
This time, OCM made the athletes pay up.
In Malaysia, the number of smokers among athletes is not prevalent, although there are many closet smokers.
You don’t see them puffing at the training ground but they have been seen happily lighting up outside the training facilities.
Some of the National Sports Associations (NSAs) are aware of it but many turn a blind eye to the problem – hoping that the athletes will somehow find ways to overcome the addiction by themselves.
Help is there
So, does smoking affect athletes’ performance?
Do they get enough help to overcome the habit? Unfortunately, no.
The latest Global Adult Tobacco Survey showed that 80% of smokers attempted to quit without assistance and that, on average, smokers make between 8-11 attempts before successfully giving it up.
There is good news though for Malaysian athletes wanting to kick the habit for good.
Johnson and Johnson Malaysia recently launched a new anti-smoking campaign with the theme “Do Something Amazing” and it also introduced the Nicorette patch, which is an improved nicotine replacement therapy to help smokers fight their cravings.
The campaign is also to encourage smokers to overcome tobacco-dependence through the setting of attainable goals, which allow them to maintain focus and have more control over the quit attempts.
In conjunction with the launch, it organised an interesting question-and-answer session involving Deputy Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahya, Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) head of sports science S. Sivanasvaran, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) head of corporate social responsibility unit Dr Annathurai Ranganathan, University Malaya’s associate professor Dr Helmy Haja Mydin (respiratory physician) and University Malaya’s associate professor Dr Amer Siddiq Amer Nordin (nicotine addiction specialist).
Sivanasvaran said that the number of footballers addicted to smoking was minimal.
“Smoking addiction is not among footballers only. Other sports face the same problem too. The number is not big though,” said Sivanaswaran.
Help, don't punish
Rather than exposing the ciggie addicts or punishing them for it, Sivanasvaran believes that counselling is one of the best ways to combat the addiction among professional athletes.
“Many professional footballers know that they need to be super fit to keep pace in this demanding sport. We have a one-to-one discussions with those who struggle with smoking addiction,” he said.
At the AFC, Dr Annathurai uses football to tackle smoking habits and other vices.
“We started this community project called ‘midnight football’ – targeting youths. Our study shows that many youths spend time ‘lepaking’ at night and we created a platform for them to play football – so that it keeps them busy on the field rather than smoking or drinking at late hours,” said Dr Annathurai, who added that education is the key to preventing young sports enthusiasts from falling into bad lifestyle.
Dr Helmy and Dr Amer said that the awareness campaign would be effective “if the smokers themselves take the first initiative to change”.
“To quit smoking can be a very difficult journey ... smokers have to cope with withdrawal symptoms and the medical conditions caused by smoking. It’s an addiction and they need support,” said Dr Helmy.
Dr Amer chipped in: “All of us can do our part in creating awareness. To help sportsmen to give up smoking, we follow these five simple steps that we call the 5As – ask (about tobacco use), advice (users to quit), assess (readiness to quit), assist (with the quit attempt) and arrange (follow-up care),” said Dr Amer, who is willing to partner with NSAs to help athletes kick their smoking habit.
Help is there ... now it’s up to the athletes to start – by “Doing Something Amazing” today.