Experts say it will take time and persistence before the ban becomes self-enforcing
Truong Hoang Duy returned to Ho Chi Minh City after a trip to Singapore saying he had smoked just four cigarettes during his four-day holiday.
Duy, an English lecturer at the HCMC's University of Education, often smokes more than a half of a pack of cigarettes a day. But he said he didn't have the opportunity to do so in Singapore.
"The antismoking laws [in Singapore] are enforced so strictly that I had no choice but to adhere to them," Duy told Thanh Nien Weekly.
The price of a pack of cigarettes also made Duy think twice.
"I had to pay around US$15 for a pack of a cigarettes and a lighter in Singapore, while it costs me only VND15,000 ($0.8) to buy a pack of Craven A in Vietnam."
In Vietnam, tobacco kills almost 40,000 people each year, the World Lung Foundation said. Half of Vietnamese adult men are smokers, and about two-thirds of children and women are frequently exposed to secondhand smoke at home and in public places, it added.
A government decree effective January 1 this year prohibits smoking at indoor public places and states that tobacco and imported cigarette tariffs will be increased.
But nearly one week since the ban took effect, it is barely visible.
"A no-smoking sign was placed at the department dean's office at my school," Duy said. "But there is no sign in front of any classroom on the floor where I teach.
"My colleagues and I often go out to smoke and no one is there to monitor or fine us."
Another teacher at Nguyen Khuyen Private High School in Tan Binh District said her male colleagues still smoked in the school's corridors frequently.
Tuoi Tre newspaper reported on January 2 that the ban was being nearly unanimously breached as people were found smoking in no-smoking areas across the country.
Thanh Nien Weekly found many people smoking at Tu Du Maternity Hospital yesterday. Under the ban, hospitals are required to set up designated smoking areas and put up no smoking signs.
Vietnamese health authorities have cited a lack of personnel and specific guidelines as obstacles to prohibiting public smoking.
But Dr. Jean-Marc Olivé, World Health Organization representative for Vietnam, said such obstacles were inevitable at the outset.
"It is now just the beginning of the smoking ban campaign. There is still time for the government to take action to ensure success," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Olivé stressed the crucial task of building up momentum toward compliance with the smoking ban. He said the government should set a leading example with strong and clear enforcement on the ban at state agencies.
"It is also important to mention that the enforcement effort only needs to run very strongly at the beginning and continue for about one year. After that people will start to take on the new good habit of not smoking in indoor public and work places," he said.
"Once the habit is formed, only minimum enforcement efforts will be required to ensure compliance."
Jorge Alday, a spokesperson for World Lung Foundation, agreed with Olivé. "...With clear information and enforcement, smoke-free laws eventually become self-enforcing," he said.
Do Dang Xuan, relative of a patient at the Hospital for Traumatology & Orthopedics in HCMC's District 5, said he was a chain smoker and could not stop smoking despite the ban.
"I know the ban is effective already, but so what? No one is watching me and the fines wouldn't deter me anyway," Xuan told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"I wouldn't be able to quit unless I had to pay big money for smoking."
Under the ban, violators will be warned and can be fined between VND50,000 ($2.7) and VND100,000 ($5.4).
But Olivé said that Vietnam should learn a lesson from Singapore in which much heavier fines help deter violations.
Under Singapore's Smoking Prohibition in Certain Places Act, smokers who smoke in smoke-free zones will be fined up to S$1,000 (VND12 million). If the manager of any establishment fails to comply with the smoking ban they will be fined up to S$1,000 the first time, and up to 2,000 dollars for the second time.
"The fine should be given to both smokers and the managers or owners of the public or work places where the smoking ban is violated," Olivé said.
Nguyen Thi Xinh, vice principal of the City Nursery School in District 3, a major nursery school in HCMC, told Thanh Nien Weekly that her school had become smoke-free before the ban thanks to a campaign by teachers and administrators who consistently insisted that parents not smoke there.
"But it took two years for them to get into the habit," Xinh said.
Duy from the University of Education said he wanted to give up smoking and observing the ban would not be difficult for him if it is enforced seriously.
"But I doubt my friends who are not willing to give up smoking will pay attention to the ban."