Personal health habit: Small steps make a big difference

Wang Yong
Shanghai has banned indoor and outdoor smoking, yet residual smoke in numerous places are a matter of concern.
Wang Yong

"What are you looking for?" I asked a group of boys and girls who had stooped down to scan the ground like seasoned detectives.

I met the merry throngs of kids at dusk last Friday as I was walking across a bridge to drop off some household waste at our neighborhood trash disposal station in suburban Shanghai's Qingpu District. Some were running, others were riding bicycles, but every now and then they would come to a halt and stoop by the roadside, as if looking for something in a concerted effort.

A boy of about 6 or 7 years old looked up at me but did not say anything. A teenage girl, holding a plastic bag, gave me a silent and shy smile. Neither of them addressed my curiosity.

Was I being a bit blunt? I was not sure. Soon, the answer revealed itself.

Personal health habit: Small steps make a big difference

A poster published by Xinhua news agency shows a child collecting cigarette stubs on a beach.

"We've collected 146 pieces!" the girl holding the plastic bag screamed with joy after she picked a cigarette stub from a crack between paver stones and put it into her "booty bag."

The boys and girls, overjoyed with their accomplishment, hardly gave me a chance to ask another question before they took off into the distance. About 200 meters distant from where I was, they started to scout a riverfront lawn.

I had intended to ask, "Is collecting cigarette stubs a school assignment?"

As I mulled over my muffled question, I looked down the road that would take me to the trash disposal station. I suddenly saw a young man, apparently in his 30s, trotting toward me with a lit cigarette in his left hand. He was reading his cellphone, held in his right hand.

Instinctively and instantly, I stepped sideways to keep away from him and his lingering smoke. Then I heard him spitting on the ground, his sanitation mask being pulled down below his nose and mouth and settling on his lower chin.

As the city is making every effort to stop the spread of Omicron, everyone is supposed to wear a mask properly, even in places like our neighborhood where crowds can easily form outside.

I cast a scornful gaze in the guy's direction because of his blatant contempt for public health, which was in stark contrast to the youngsters' dedication to the common good. There was no rule prohibiting spitting or smoking in most open areas of a residential community, so I was hesitant to confront the man.

Moral admonition would largely fall on deaf ears.

Wang Xinyu, an expert on infectious diseases at Huashan Hospital, told reporters in an interview published on Tuesday that spitting around can spread not only novel coronavirus but also certain other respiratory diseases like Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

According to a news story published on in April, the cigarette smoke exhaled by a COVID-19 patient may contain relevant infections, putting adjacent individuals at risk. Even if the man I met wasn't a COVID patient, his lingering smoke and careless spitting posed a health risk.

Later, I encountered him in another place in our neighborhood. He was still smoking. I was about 50 meters away from him and did not "receive" the bad smell. After he walked away, I moved to where he was standing on my way back home. Alas, his lingering smoke in the air attacked me with a vengeance, even after he had left the place.

Personal health habit: Small steps make a big difference

A cartoon published by the Xinhua news agency illustrates the dangers of passive smoking.

I covered my nose ― I already wore a mask ― with my elbow and ran toward a riverfront space, only to run into those lovely kids again. They were still stooping, bent on collecting cigarette stubs.

"Here's one!" I found one near my foot and was ready to pick it up for them. A little boy rushed and picked it up before I got my hands on it. He turned around and put it in that girl's plastic bag.

He exclaimed, his eyes gleaming, "Now, we have 172 stubs!"

"Why do you do this ― collecting all these stubs?" I finally got a chance to ask my second question. "Is it an assignment from your school?"

"No, we just wanted to do it ourselves," the boy and girl answered while waving their heads.

My journalistic instinct prompted me to ask more "whys," but the kids gave me no more chance. A little boy scampered around and suggested to his pals that they should scout the trash disposal area for more possible discoveries. Before I could "hook" them into my informal interview, they left.

While I bemoaned the actions of the 30-something man, I found encouragement in the youngsters' courageous effort to remove as many stubs as possible from our neighborhood. They enjoyed themselves while "performing their job."

If more and more people, especially those in the adult world, find fun in doing good for public health, our society will be better off as a whole.

Shanghai has banned indoor smoking. Outdoor smoking in certain places like kindergartens and children's hospitals has also been somehow prohibited. But lingering smoking in many other open spaces remains a headache for lots of passive victims. The Paper, a major news media outlet based in Shanghai, reported last year that more than 70 percent of the citizens surveyed claimed to be such victims, and over 90 percent of the victims regarded lingering smoke as disturbing.

Cultivating healthy habits is a personal decision that can benefit society. An individual's behavior is both a private and a public concern in our battle against COVID-19.

Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the value of developing positive personal health habits at the end of December. He specifically talked about the need to create a solid societal defense against COVID-19 through the construction of myriad smaller, healthier environments. He made the remarks in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of China's Patriotic Health Movement.

Despite my unfortunate run-in with the lingering smoke, I find comfort in the steadily declining rates of smoking among Shanghai's adult population. By 2022, adult smoking rates in the city had declined for seven years in a row, according to Xinhua news agency. Only 19.4 percent of the city's adult population smokes as of right now.

When the boys and girls who collected cigarette stubs in our neighborhood grow up, I hope they will breathe cleaner air into the adult world.

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