Buddhist monks find it hard to quit

Agençe France-Presse, May 31, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand -- About a quarter of Thailand's 300,000 Buddhist monks can?t kick the habit despite an anti-smoking campaign targeting them, local health authorities say. The campaign was launched in 2003 in response to statistics showing that the leading cause of death among Thai monks is tobacco related disease.

<< About 36% of Cambodia's 59,000 Buddhist monks smoke (Image: Reuters/Chor Sokunthea)

Associate Professor Supreda Adulayanon of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, an independent agency set up by the government, says the number of smoking monks has decreased, but not by enough.

The number of monks who smoke fell from 55% 15 years ago to 25% today, according to the foundation.

"It should be better, but we still hope to decrease it more," Adulayanon says, adding that much of the decline observed was in the 1990s.

Thailand is among a host of Asian nations whose governments are tightening anti-smoking laws.

Anti-smoking activists have previously enlisted Buddhist monks from Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka to help fight the tobacco habit, but say one of the main challenges is persuading monks themselves to quit.

Asia's monks have also been encouraged to attend workshops on Buddhism and tobacco control.

Smoke in the temple

Lighting up is now illegal in most public places in Bangkok, including shopping malls, schools, restaurants and religious places, yet monks who are unable to break their habit are still allowed to smoke in their temple quarters.

Temples are supposed to be non-smoking  >>
areas, but this isn't always the case (Image: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad)

Nicotine addiction remains a serious problem for many monks, says Phra Maha Pisarn, a monk at Wat Pathum Wanaram, a prominent Bangkok temple where about 20 of the 100 monks smoke.

"Monks should set an example for people, so we decided that monks should not smoke in public. But for monks who could not quit smoking, we allow them to smoke in private temple areas," he says.

Monks are expected to shun vice and life's luxuries yet there is no religious edict banning them from smoking, as there is against drugs or alcohol.

Temples are supposed to be smoke-free environments and leaving cigarettes as offerings - a long-held tradition among followers - has been labeled a sin by the Supreme Sangha, Thailand's top Buddhist authority.

Thailand, with a population of 64 million, has 9.6 million smokers, according to the Thai Health Promotion Foundation.

Some 39% of Thai males aged 15 or more smoke, down from 60% 20 years ago.

In the northeast, Thailand's poorest region, the smoking rate among monks is at 40%, Adulayanon says, citing a 2004 survey.

"We have asked people not to offer cigarettes to the monks, and that has proved effective."