A few decades ago, many Malaysians literally lived amidst smoke. Cigarette smoke pervaded the air in buses, clinics, shops, restaurants, and even on air planes. People puffed everywhere, some all day at work. There was little escape. Someone could light up in your house next to your children – and you’d be expected to provide an ashtray. On TV, actors smoked on screen, and images of cigarette brands even infiltrated sports broadcasts, as major sponsors.

As a young journalist at The Star in the early 1990s, I remember our own smoky newsroom. One night, when working late, I looked up to see a thick white cloud floating above the area where the sub-editors sat chain-smoking.

Smoke-free zones were still radical then. The winds of change came with emerging evidence about the dangers of second-hand smoke – and sometimes, through the action of individuals like my colleague June H.L. Wong, then a chief reporter.

“I had worked in a smoke-filled environment for some years and always resented that we nonsmokers had to endure second-hand smoke, smelly cigarette butts left in used coffee cups, and ash-covered keyboards,” she recalls. “Also annoying was how our hair and clothes stank at the end of the day.”

Many of The Star’s women journalists then were starting families, including June herself.

“I felt enough was enough. Pregnant colleagues shouldn’t have to endure such an unhealthy workplace.”

June drew up a simple petition calling for a ban on smoking in the newsroom. Nonsmokers, especially women, rallied round. But some smokers were hostile and initially refused to sign it.

“They were concerned about how it would affect their ability to work, as they were used to puffing at their desks,” explains June, now Star Media Group’s chief operating officer for content development.

Eventually, though, most realised the benefits of a ban, and it was adopted – and not just in the newsroom but across the whole company.

Not long after, in 1994, Malaysia’s first national law on tobacco control was enforced with smoke-free zones and tighter controls on cigarette sales to minors.

Numerous studies have shown that smoking bans lead to a drop in deaths from heart disease. After Scotland introduced a smoking ban in public places in 2006, hospital admissions for acute coronary syndrome fell by 17%. In New York City, a year after its ban in 2004, heart attacks fell by 8%, with nearly 4,000 fewer admissions and savings of US$56mil (RM240mil at today’s rates) in hospital costs. These studies – and others showing improvements in asthma and respiratory symptoms – are described on the website of the US Centers for Disease Control, cdc.gov.

I’m sure the smoking ban in The Star’s newsroom prevented some heart attacks, especially among those smoking subs. Tobacco smoke is simply toxic: it contains at least 250 chemicals known to be harmful, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Consider this. If we had a vaccine that could cure a third of cancers and improve the outcome of most major diseases, wouldn’t you support it? Well, that vaccine is tobacco control.

Earlier this year, the Government designated all playgrounds, camp sites, and public parks on the peninsula as no smoking zones. Smoking will only be permitted in open car parks. The Government has also extended the smoking ban to 3m around a building and plans to hike cigarette prices, which are currently lower than WHO-recommended levels.

According to the Health Ministry, smoking-related deaths account for one in five of all deaths annually in this country and more than 15% of hospitalisations. The Government spent some RM3bil treating three major smoking-related diseases, including heart disease, in 2010.

More needs to be done to help smokers quit. Some 43% of Malaysian adult men still smoke, according to the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey. Among Malay men aged 21 to 30 years, the prevalence was 55% in 2013, the study found.

What’s particularly worrying is that young people are still taking up the habit. In some rural areas and in boys’ vocational schools, smoking rates are very high, according to a review of studies by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia researchers. One study on three schools in Kota Baru found about 30% of teenage boys smoked. Another study found 43% of lower secondary students in schools in Felda settlement areas smoked.

The planned cigarette price hike will help deter the young, but, clearly, more needs to be done. Rather than rely on laws, we need a sea change in attitudes. Indeed, that was what helped shift the smoking culture in Australia and the United States, where smoking is now seen as shameful.

Individuals need to lead the way here. On World No-Tobacco Day on May 31, it’s worth bearing in mind how each of us, as individuals, can help stub out a habit that kills so many. In June’s case, it took just one person to get the ball rolling on changing the policy of an entire company.

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.