Published on Voices

Healthy living for healthy societies and stronger economies

The cigarette puffs surrounded the 18-month-old boy as he stood next to his chain-smoking grandparents in the living room, while a 3-year-old girl fetched a can of Pepsi-Cola from the fridge in the kitchen. Just across in the dining area, a 7-month-old boy was being fed a creamy, sugary, chocolate cake, while a bunch of other kids were playing “house” in the front yard by actually eating unlimited number of chocolate bars, cake, and chips while drinking soda.

I could not believe my eyes. Observing these behaviors as a parent myself, it seemed like I was watching the slow death and diseases haunting these children for the rest of their lives.

It has always been like this, but I had never noticed it until I moved out of Iraq and became a parent. I grew up in a place where the unhealthy lifestyle was not a major concern. There are many other, more pressing concerns people there tend to worry about — and rightfully so — than what they eat and drink.

However, what people in my war-torn home country may not realize is that it’s not only car bombs that can kill them. Cigarettes, junk food, and soda can too.

I spent three weeks in Baghdad recently to visit my mother, who was dying of cancer. During my visit, I met with some of my relatives. I noticed not only that some of them didn’t care much about what their children eat, they themselves did not care for their health either. They chain-smoke (around kids, of course) and hadn’t been to a doctor for a checkup in years!

“I’d rather die suddenly,” a 37-year-old cousin of mine there once said. “I don’t want to know if I have any disease that I have to deal with,” he added.

I was speechless.

This is exactly how mother died. A tumor on her left kidney kept growing for five years, destroying it and then spreading to the bones. For five years since her last checkup, the cancer had infiltrated her blood and advanced to stage IV. It was too late to treat when discovered. She had only one month to live.

It takes a village

Educating people in Iraq and around the world, on healthy lifestyle is a vital matter — to the people and their countries’ economies.

A World Bank report warns that risky behaviors –smoking, using illicit drugs, alcohol abuse, unhealthy diets, and unsafe sex— are increasing globally  and pose a growing threat to the health of individuals, particularly in developing countries. Titled “Risking your Health: Causes, Consequences and Interventions to Prevent Risky Behaviors”, the report looks at how individual choices that lead to these behaviors are formed and reviews the effectiveness of interventions such as legislation, taxation, behavioral change campaigns, and cash transfers to combat them.

Engaging in such risky behaviors, according to the report, exerts a significant toll on the individual’s productivity in the long-run. Society suffers as immediate peers of those who engage in risky behaviors may also experience declines in their productivity. Children are at particular risk, for example if they have to stop schooling due to a sick parent or if development of their cognitive abilities is compromised due to early exposure to harmful substances.      
“Risky behaviors not only endanger an individual’s health and reduce life expectancy, they often impose consequences on others,” said Damien de Walque, senior economist in the World Bank’s research department and principal editor of the report, in a press release. “The health consequences and monetary costs of risky behaviors to individuals, their families, and society as a whole are staggering and justify public interventions.”

I once was a smoker myself. The peer pressure in high school and the difficulties I had to face during the country’s wars had led me to smoke. However, after a doctor’s consultation and educating myself on how harmful this habit is, I quit and it has been seven years since I lit a cigarette. Unbelievably, smoking rates increased in 27 countries between 2000 and 2015.  I am lucky I am not part of that statistic, and you should not be either. As they say, health is wealth. So think twice before flushing your wealth down the toilet or to the grave! 

Related Links: 

The global state of smoking in 5 charts
Plain Packaging & Tobacco Taxes: An Antidote for Manipulation and Deception


Bassam Sebti

Arabic-Language Digital Specialist, IFC

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