Despite the occasional whiff of smoke she picked up, they kept dating. By the time she discovered his smoking, she was in love. She tolerated him but not the cigarettes. “I tried begging, teasing, setting boundaries and smoke-free areas in the house,” she remembers.
For 14 years, Wondu smoked on and earned a salary from tobacco (he began smoking 11 years earlier, when he was a teenager).
Even after he and Amsale (with others) started the Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society, in honour of their son who died of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia at age 4, Wondu kept his habit and his job. They started the Cancer Society “to help our fellow cancer patients in whatever way we can and challenge the growing burden of cancer here in Ethiopia”.
“During my son’s illness, I read a lot about cancer, risk factors and medicines. That is when I discovered the risk of tobacco for the user and others,” he says. “I started reducing the number of cigarettes I smoked. When I did smoke, I smoked outside the house. Then my wife even made our compound smoke-free and banned me from smoking altogether while at home until the day she said, ‘Choose me or tobacco’.”
The change in their home life after he quit was like night and day, says Amsale. “From the aroma of the house to the absence of arguments over tobacco to the assurance of my husband’s and, as I later learned, the whole family’s health. I used to worry about my husband’s health and his and our future. Now, I am no longer on edge. I also used to worry about the example he was setting for our children. Thankfully, neither of them smoke.”
They started the Cancer Society in their home in Addis Ababa, and it has grown to include 1500 members, with a board of directors, 26 full-time staff members and 500 volunteers. It has since expanded its scope to include noncommunicable diseases. It has provided state-of-the-art equipment to one hospital, worked with several hospitals to improve their lung cancer treatment and has projects on childhood cancer, women’s cancer and ending tobacco use.
“I, the Society strongly and partners advocated for an excise tax to make sure the price of tobacco is prohibitively high,” Wondu says. Explaining that 70% of smokers who seek medical care want to quit but are unable to, he believes “the best remedy is to make tobacco unaffordable to discourage would-be smokers from debuting and push current smokers to reduce their tobacco use.”
The Government of Ethiopia is working with the Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society and other partners on a three-year tobacco control plan that includes strengthening tobacco cessation efforts.
After 25 years of smoking, quitting was easier for Wondu than he knows it is for others. The death of his youngest child opened his eyes to his family’s well-being and his own health. He doesn’t wish that tragedy on anyone in order to give up smoking.
“Each person must understand that they are responsible for their own health,” says Wondu. Tobacco use will lead to noncommunicable diseases, and they are incurable. So, each of us needs to take our health into our own hands. We all have a choice to make. We must say: My body is too precious for tobacco.”
Senior Communications Officer
Email: tesfayel [at] who.int
Tel: +251 911 144 194 (Direct, Whatsapp)
Email: ramanandraiben [at] who.int
Communications and marketing officer
Tel: + 242 06 520 65 65 (WhatsApp)
Email: boakyeagyemangc [at] who.int