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Last year saw a double first for the South East Asian Games (SEA Games), a regional athletics event held every two years. Eleven countries participated in the prestigious event, the 22nd in the contest’s history, but it was the first time it had been hosted by Vietnam, and the first time it was designated tobacco-free.
This meant much more than simply banning smoking in sports arenas; all related venues, indoor or outdoor, training areas, athletes’ living quarters and staff areas, were made smoke-free, and a comprehensive range of other measures aimed to ensure that any opportunity for promotion was left where it belongs—in the hands of health, not tobacco.
Key players in the substantial task of planning and implementing the policy included the World Health Organization (WHO)—the move was initiated to support the tobacco-free sports strategy developed by its Western Pacific region in 2002—and Vietnam’s ministry of health, through its national tobacco control programme VINACOSH (Vietnam Committee on Smoking and Health).
A pivotal aspect of the plan was a Memorandum of Agreement signed by all the main players, which acted as a catalyst for action and clarified many practical issues. A model of comprehensiveness, it defined “tobacco-free” and “smoke-free” games as: “having no tobacco sales, sponsorship, advertising, or any form of promotion permitted at any games site. Smoking to be permitted only in designated areas, and substantial efforts made to provide useful and accurate information about tobacco use to athletes, spectators, staff, and other visitors attending the 22nd SEA games.”
WHO provided technical assistance in developing the regulations, and financial support for training workshops for volunteers, on site officials and key staff. It also supported VINACOSH and the organising committee in implementing the policies, and provided accurate information about the harmful effects of tobacco to athletes, officials, referees, spectators, staff, and other visitors, and for wider health promotion in Vietnam.
The training workshops, policy communication, and public education and information, including television spots, billboards, and features in the press, were all major tasks in themselves; and as befits any worthwhile public health activity, the plan was carefully evaluated. Results found a high level of success overall, with generally good compliance. There was no evidence of tobacco promotion or sales at any venues, and little smoking at indoor venues, including press areas. While there was some smoking in outdoor venues, especially the main stadium, there was scarcely any at all at major events such as the opening and closing ceremonies.
Local health workers felt that apart from achieving its primary objectives, the exercise had also produced wider gains for pubic health. It reinforced existing tobacco control policies and put tobacco firmly on the agenda, not just in Vietnam, but in all 11 participating countries, whose ministers of health all received detailed information about it. Health officials spoke of excellent inter-agency cooperation and support, and significantly increased knowledge and awareness of the health effects of smoking over a wide ranging population. WHO provided some US$30 500 for the implementation of the policy, making its success seem exceptional value for money, and enabling Vietnam to provide a valuable lead for others to follow.