BANGKOK, Thailand (UCAN) – In a government TV advertisement, a woman asks a man sitting beside her with a cigarette: "Are you my friend?" The man replies, "No."
"So why are you attacking me with cigarette smoke?" she asks, and the man immediately stubs his cigarette out. The TV image fades out with a banner in Thai saying, "Don't attack people near you with your cigarette smoke."
The Thai government is at war with smoking. Over the last 10 years, there's been a ban on smoking in restaurants, shopping malls and on public transport. Cigarette packets must display grisly photos of diseased lungs, rotting teeth and skulls. A ban on smoking in bars is being considered.
And now the Catholic Church has joined the fight, calling on Catholics to stop smoking for Lent. It would be a good start, it says, to giving up the addictive habit for good.
The call was announced at a small event, staged by a small community, in this Buddhist-majority country, but it was the first time the Catholic Church has officially spoken out about smoking.
In a Feb. 16 presentation at St. Francis Xavier Church in Bangkok's Samsen area, about 30 laypeople and 10 members of the media listened to Bishop Michael Bunluen Mansap, retired bishop of Ubon Ratchathani, and Professor Prakit Vatisatogkit, president of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Action on Smoking and Health Foundation (ASH).
Bishop Bunluen talked about how Catholics prepare for the 40 days of Lent. "We should give up something we really like during Lent and use the 40 days to reflect on how we can be closer to God," he explained.
Prakit elaborated on the dangers of smoking. Cigarette smoke can even kill a baby in its mother's womb, he said. "If people can stop smoking in Lent time at 40 days, maybe they can stop smoking forever," he hoped.
The 40 days of Lent began on Feb. 21 this year and will continue until the Easter Vigil the night of April 7, not counting Sundays.
Redemptorist Bishop Philip Banchong Chaiyara of Ubon Ratchathani, the president of Thailand's Catholic Commission for Human Development, told UCA News Lent is a time of modification.
"We want laypeople to recognize Lent as an opportunity to be closer with God. This year we have an anti-smoking campaign," said Bishop Banchong. "Smoking is a danger to people who are near to smokers."
There are other problems in society, such as illegal drug abuse, he is aware, but "we do only one campaign per year" for maximum effectiveness.
In addition to the normal reminders at Masses throughout Lent, the commission is also promoting the campaign through stickers and sheets relating the dangers of cigarettes. Bishop Banchong said the focus will be on all Catholics during Lent, but after Lent, the campaign will shift to Catholic schools.
Lakshmi Kasemvongrach, who oversees the Lent campaign in Thailand's Catholic Commission for Human Development, told UCA News that typically they use the pope's message for the annual campaign. This year, however, Prof. Montha Keangkranphanit, a Catholic who is an assistant researcher at Mahidol University, approached the bishop's conference with a new idea: an anti-smoking campaign for Lent, in collaboration with the NGO ASH.
According to the Thai government, smoking leads to cancer, heart and respiratory diseases. Thailand has about 9.5 million smokers, according to Bishop Banchong, in a population of 63 million. According to ASH, 52,000 people die yearly of smoking-related causes, or 142 people a day. ASH runs a telephone hotline for those who want to quit.
Catholic Lenten donations normally are spent on groups in need, such as poor people or hill tribes. The church also sends money to the Vatican, to disburse amongst countries in need.
Thai Buddhists have their own Lenten season, Khao Phansa, a retreat for monks during the rainy season. This year, Khao Phansa is from July 30 to Oct. 26. During this season of austerity, Buddhists are reminded of the religion's five precepts, or commandments, for laypeople: No lying, no killing, no stealing, no alcohol and no illicit sex.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News), the world's largest Asian church news agency (www.ucanews.com).