The prevalence of current smoking among adult males in this study (46.4%) is comparable to the findings by Rampal et al. (2006) [18
] and the Malaysia NCD Surveillance-1 in 2006 [19
], which found smoking rates of 47.2% and 46.5%, respectively. However, it is higher than rates from the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) in 2011 which reported that 43.6% of Malaysian male aged 15 years and above were current smokers [20
Our study showed that the prevalence of smoking in Malaysia has dropped by only 2.8% between 1996 and 2006. The observed decrease, though statistically significant, is very modest compared to other countries that have reduced smoking prevalence by 9% to 25% over 10–20 years after implementing anti-tobacco measures [21
]. This could be due to the fact that countries with more successful reduction in smoking prevalence quickly adopted the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, while Malaysia has a shorter history of implementing tobacco control measures.
Other Asian countries which reported comparable smoking prevalence in adult males are Thailand (45.6%) [23
] and Vietnam (50%) [24
]. However, the prevalence of smoking was higher than India (24.3%) [25
], but lower than China (66.9%) [26
] and the Philippines (53.8%) [27
]. These variations may be due to differences in the tobacco control programs and legislation implemented in these countries [28
In the present study, the mean age of smoking onset (18.3 year old) was lower than reported by the NHMS II in 1996 (19.5 year old) (p <0.01) [16
]. This is consistent with the mean age of smoking onset in Kuwait (18 years) [29
] and Thailand (18.3 years) [23
] yet is higher than India (17.8 years) [26
]. In China, a three-year decrease in the mean age of smoking onset has been reported [30
] and taken together with Malaysia, this may represent the success of the multinational tobacco companies which continue to focus their advertisement on the youngsters. Other plausible explanations would be the lack of perception of harmful effects of tobacco amongst Malaysians [31
], higher affordability and easy availability and accessibility to tobacco products in Malaysia. Further investigations are certainly needed to elucidate the reasons for the decreased mean age of smoking onset in Malaysia while developed countries are show the opposite trend [32
The present study found that 60% of Malaysian male smokers started smoking by the age of 18, which is higher than those reported in China (52.7%) [26
], but lower than in the USA (80%) [33
] and Canada (82.6%) [34
]. This heralds a worrying trend in Malaysia since at present more than a quarter of its population is aged 15 and below [35
]. Health education (particularly on smoking) should be incorporated as a subject in primary and secondary schools curricula and should include encouraging healthy leisure time activities to deter smoking, raising awareness of health impact of smoking, enhancing children’s emotional intelligence and social skills to resist smoking. Schools should have trained personnel who are able to provide smoking cessation counseling to students. Emphasis should be on rehabilitation and prevention of smoking instead of punishment as commonly practiced now. More severe penalties such as higher fines, revocation of business license or jail term should be meted out to those who sell cigarettes to minors.
The average number of cigarettes smoked by the study respondents was 12.3 cigarettes per day, slightly less than 13.3 cigarettes per day in 1996 (p
]. Compared to neighboring countries, this average number of cigarettes is more than the 11.3 cigarettes per day reported by the Philippines [27
] yet lower than 13.5 and 14.3 cigarettes per day reported in Vietnam [24
] and China [36
], respectively. The decrease in the average number of cigarettes smoked may reflect an actual decrease in the demand amongst Malaysian men or an increase in the price of tobacco products in the country over the past five years. For example, with respect to increasing tobacco prices, a Taiwanese study reported the possibility of decreasing the country’s average annual per capita cigarette consumption by 14.86 packs with a 44% increment in the price of cigarettes [37
]. The present study also found that 56.0% of current male smokers smoked less than 11 cigarettes per day and another 38.8% smoked between 11–20 cigarettes per day. Intensified efforts directed at encouraging smokers to quit smoking are therefore encouraged by these trends and findings.
The most commonly consumed tobacco product among Malaysian male smokers was the cigarette (90%) and hand-rolled tobacco (40%). Cigarettes were also the most consumed tobacco product in the Philippines (97.8%) [27
] However, cigarettes were less popular in Thailand (64.9%) and India (43.1%) where hand-rolled tobaccos were also commonly used [23
]. Currently, the tobacco control policies are more focus on cigarettes than other tobacco product. However the sales of hand-rolled cigarettes also need to be regulated considering that a significantly high proportion of smokers also use them.
Male respondents in rural areas were more likely to be smokers compared to males living in urban areas (Adjusted Odds Ratio (aOR) 1.12, 95%, CI 1.03–1.22). This finding is consistent with findings from the NHMS II [16
] and with findings from a population-based study in China, Thailand and Korea [36
], yet runs contrary to reports from the western countries [40
]. Several possible explanations for this finding are, urban residents are more often exposed to anti-smoking campaigns and measures, and the co-existence of other known risk factors for smoking, namely lower income and education levels, among those living in rural areas. However, the observed association between urban–rural and smoking status was maintained after adjusting for income and education, thereby excluding them as the possible explanation for the difference. Another possible contributing factor for higher prevalence of smoking in rural areas is targeted marketing by the tobacco industry towards the rural residents [42
]. Furthermore, tobacco-growing contributes substantially to the economy of many rural communities in Malaysia and thereby makes smoking a more accepted behaviour in this setting.
A lower smoking prevalence was found among men aged 50 years and above in this study, which is in accordance with estimates from Korea [43
] (50.0% among 50–55 years old compare to 62.0% among age group of 30–34 years old) and Albania [44
] (26.5% among respondents age 55–64, 40.9% among 45–54 years old compared to 58.7% among those age 25–34 years old). The higher proportion of ex-smokers in older age groups was among the plausible explanations to the present finding. The proportion of ex-smokers according to age group were as follows: 17.1% (95% CI 14.5–20.1) among respondents aged 18–20 years old, 14.5% (95% CI 13.1–16.1) among 21–30 years old, 18.9% (95% CI 17.2–20.6) among 31–40 years old, and 27.2% (95% CI 25.2–29.2), 36.1% (95% CI 33.7–38.5) and 45.8% (95% CI 43.1–48.1) among 41–50, 51–60 and 61 years and above respectively. A similar pattern was reported by the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), which found that in Malaysia the proportion of current smokers was higher among the 25–44 years old age group (54.9%), decreased to 43.8% for 45–64 year olds, and decreased further to 25.3% for respondents 65 years and above [20
]. Possible explanations for this include having more time to encounter smoking-related health problems, increased health consciousness with age, more time to be exposed to anti-smoking efforts, and a sense of vulnerability that is less pronounced in the younger age groups. This sense of vulnerability, in addition to having a greater likelihood of experiencing adverse health events from smoking, tend to make older males more receptive to public health messages and medical advice, and therefore more likely to quit smoking [45
]. The finding that older Malaysian males smoke less than middle-aged and younger males is also a cause for concern for the two younger cohorts, as population trends show that there will likely be a rise in their numbers in the future, and therefore a greater burden on the country from smoking unless these trends are reversed.
Divorced men were found to smoke more than single, married or widowed men. This is consistent with findings reported by Nystedt in 2006 [46
], Cho et al
. in 2008 [47
], and Aekplakorn et al
. in 2008 [38
]. There were no significant differences in smoking prevalence between married and single males, and this is corroborated by Yu et al
] who reported smoking was not related to marital status among adult persons residing in urban areas of China. These findings may be explained by the ‘marriage protection’ and ‘marriage selection’ theories [49
], which posit that emotional distress due to divorce cause divorcees to turn to smoking for relief. Moreover, married people tend to have more economic advantages, and receive more social and psychological support which can make quitting smoking more likely. It is also possible that the healthier non smokers are more likely to get and stay married than those who are divorced as posited by the marriage selection theory.
More than half of the Malays and other indigenous ethnic groups were current smokers. Malays and other indigenous ethnic groups were more likely to be active smokers compared to Indians. Similar proportions have been observed in the previous NHMS surveys [16
]. Potential factors contributing to the association between ethnicity and smoking status are many and deserve further investigation, especially as adjustment for age, socio-economic status and other factors did not remove the effect of ethnicity on smoking status.
A significant association was observed between both monthly household income and education level with current smoking status. The higher the level of an individual’s education and income, the less likely that individual is to be a current smoker. Interestingly, a study from Saudi Arabia showed that smoking prevalence was significantly higher among literate than illiterate Saudis [50
]. The authors postulated that anti-smoking campaigns unintentionally conveyed smoking as a behaviour of those with elevated social status and therefore smoking was more popular among those who were exposed to those advertising campaigns. In this study, however, the findings are more consistent with what one would predict, that the better educated one is, the more concerned one would be about health and therefore the lesser the likelihood to smoke. Other studies by Huisman et al
. in 2005 and Gilmore et al
. in 2000 [51
] reported higher income level as a protective factor for smoking while Aekplakorn et al
. (2008) [38
], Cho et al
. (2008) [47
], Lim et al
. in 2010 [39
]. Khang and Cho (2006), [53
] found that the likelihood of smoking was higher among those from lower education and income bracket.
Type of occupation was significantly associated with current smoking status in the present study. Elementary workers and agricultural workers had a higher tendency to smoke than those in management and other professional occupations. This finding is consistent with what has been reported from previous studies in Europe and Asia [39
] where it has been postulated that lower-level occupational groups face more physical and psychosocial stressors compared to the managerial and professional classes and therefore, are more likely to engage in high risk health behaviors such as smoking.
In accordance with results linking occupation and current smoking status, results from this study showed that Malaysians with low socioeconomic status had greater smoking rates than those with high socioeconomic status. This pattern is similar to other countries. It is likely that individuals with low education, low level occupation, and low income have less access to adequate health care information and face financial difficulties that increase their stress levels, making them more susceptible to partake in unhealthy lifestyle or health risks such as smoking. Previous studies have shown that smoking is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with stress [57
]. Therefore, social disparities in smoking need to be addressed into future health policies.
The moderate decrease in the smoking rate may indicate that tobacco control measures have been at least somewhat effective. Since the introduction of the Control of Tobacco Products Regulation in 1993, the prevalence of exposure to secondhand smoke in gazetted areas has reportedly declined while prohibition of smoking in Malaysian homes has increased from 7% in 2005 to 40.3% in 2009, with nearly half of all smokers designating their homes as non-smoking areas. The percentage of smokers working indoors who refrained from smoking at work increased from 33.6% in 2005 to 64.4% in 2009 [11
Pictorial health warnings were introduced on cigarette packaging in 2009. Reading the warning labels closely often or very often increased from 54.4 to 68.3% and giving up a cigarette at least once due to the reading the label increased from 24.1% to 45.4% [11
]. Beyond these self-reported statistics however, the broader impacts of the pictorial warning on smoking prevalence is not known and requires further investigation.
The effect of banning tobacco advertising from the mass media in 2004 has also been unclear. The International Tobacco Control Survey in 2009 [11
] reported that only 9% adult smokers noticed clothing or other items linked to a cigarette brand. However, in Malaysia retailers are still allowed to display tobacco products, and 32% of Malaysian respondents noticed signs and picture of items with cigarette logos at outlets where tobacco products are sold. Regulations prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors are in place, but lack of enforcement has resulted in an increase in cigarette purchases by under-aged adolescents in spite of the law [58
]. In 2004, the Ministry of Health launched a five-year national anti-smoking campaign with the slogan ‘Tak Nak’ (Say No) that reached more than 92% of the population. The campaign apparently succeeded in educating the public on the dangers of smoking [11
Cigarette prices in the country have risen as an effect of high tobacco taxes [11
]. Imposing higher taxes on tobacco products may be an effective strategy to boost smoking cessation. Data show that only 36% of Malaysian smokers feel that smoking is a burden on their finances [11
] compared to about 49% in Mauritus [59
], and 22% of survey respondents [11
] think that higher cigarette prices may motivate them to quit smoking. Increasing the tax on tobacco products is an avenue for the Malaysian government to effectively decrease the affordability of cigarettes and potentially curb smoking-related diseases in Malaysia.
This study has several limitations; principal among them is its cross-sectional design which limits study findings to the reporting of associations between current smoking status and exposure. In addition, smoking status is based on self-reporting and is not validated by objective measurements like biochemical markers of smoking. This could result in underestimating the actual prevalence of smoking amongst Malaysian males, but self-reported data on cigarette smoking and smokeless tobacco use has been found to be valid in other surveys [60
]. The strengths of this study include its large sample size and representativeness of the Malaysian population. Moreover, the interview technique employed was standardized and made use of a personalized approach to ensure a high response rate (96.7%) and greater willingness to report on socio-economic status and education level, both key factors for examining the relationship between social class and smoking in the adult male population in Malaysia.