People looking at their cellphones in a busy street in New York, US. Mobile devices have become so much a part of our lives that they have become an addiction, just like smoking cigarettes. -EPA

I AM indeed glad that letter writer Dr Megawati Omar (NST Letters, Aug 3) had voiced concern on mobile phone addiction and the need to stem it before it spirals out of control.

Surprisingly, not many pay particular attention to this and life continues coping with the “disruption” that this form of technology causes. In fact, disruption has become the new normal — no one questions it anymore. Instead, those without it have become the subject of curiosity, at times ridicule, for not keeping up with times where disruption is a must!

Dr Megawati argued against one such disruption at the level of the most basic unit of life that for centuries has been regarded as an essential part of being human — the family unit. She reasoned that based on family considerations alone, the impact is sufficient to cause concern. But yet, this is less compelling somehow that nothing much changes as a result.

More worrying is the reverse, where technology is allowed to be embedded in our way of life in such a way that life “stops” without it. I recall an old advertisement that said: “Don’t leave home without it!”. That product is now the mobile device, the cellphone in particular.

In fact, within the home itself, the cellphone seems to rule, as several research findings indicate, to the point of “addiction”, akin to smokers who are keenly aware that smoking is dangerous to their health and the family. But they continue to puff, regardless.

The inability or unwillingness to restrain oneself is almost certainly a sign of habituation, if not “addiction”, per se. In other words, the mobile phone is the “new” cigarette or tobacco that we have taken for granted.

As an ardent anti-tobacco advocate since my student days, the comparison is too close to ignore to the detriment of the future. Here are five reasons why.

FIRST, cigarettes in their early days were regarded as a “glamourous” product. The history of “tobacco convincing” argued that the produce belongs to the rich and famous of the time, at the courts and palaces. It was closely linked to the upper strata of society — exclusively indulged in for their pleasure — and not the ordinary population. So is the cellphone, at least during its advent.

Despite its bulky and ugly appearance and design, it was seen as a status symbol. It later turned into a mark of importance, to be sought after on the go, at least as perceived if not real! That perception soon became the new normal that is currently worshipped on the altar of “success”.

I vividly remember those days when someone spoke at the top of his lungs as though to show-off his cellphone deemed as an exclusive item then.

SECOND, the above-mentioned phenomenon has everything to do with how the devices are being promoted and marketed. Mobile phone companies are fond of using (gullible) celebrities and popular figures — local and international — to market their products. Not unlike tobacco products, which once upon a time “piggybacked” on several celebrities too.

Most “heroes” (like John Wayne) were framed as “smokers” by top box office movies. Also, doctors and professionals who were paid to endorse smoking. Many, therefore, became easy consumers, influenced by personalities whom they idolised as fans and worthy of emulation.

THIRD, implicit in such high-profile endorsements was the “assurance” of safety as a matter of choice. In fact, for both cases, the message was not about dependency on the products, but as a matter of convenience and influence. The issue of health, namely addiction, dependency, and even cancer were left on the backburner as sales grew exponentially. Any attempt to highlight such issues were countered with “doubts” as a way to “neutralise” the case, facilitated by corruption and high-handed tactics.

FOURTH, to capture the market, at the same time, the products were diversified to other segments, notably, women and youth. Slim-designed cigarettes, menthol‎, and low tar cigarettes, the use of filters and charcoal were introduced with claims that these were “safer” and “healthier” choices. Currently, it is vaping! Underlying these deceitful techniques were subliminal messages to carry on smoking regardless, bolstered by huge billboards to remind smokers of their brand loyalty as a nudge to continue the smoking habit.

The difference from the mobile phone “messaging” and displays today is dismal. In fact, the latter took a step further by having brand loyalty “stands” during prime time to taking advantage of its status in the technological world. But no one knows for sure if it is totally safe and “healthy” just like tobacco was once wrongly assumed.

FIFTH, and this is the ultimate rub. When cigarette companies finally realised how addictive the products were they denied it publicly. Otherwise they suppressed or manipulated it‎, or even paid millions to hire professionals and governments to lobby in the defence of the deadly products. Why? Because per stick of cigarette contains thousands of toxic and cancerous chemicals that lead to a myriad of long-term debilitating diseases, if not premature or an agonising death!

How honest are the telecommunication companies in this respect? We just have to wait and see if there will be a repeat of tobacco’s blatant lies when it comes to the crunch.

Already “e-gaming” is now considered a psychiatric disorder! The link between mobile devices with addiction has also been confirmed. What else? What is sure is that most cellphone users are not aware of the many toxic and polluting substances deposited in their dearly-guarded devices. They may be protesting publicly against the company that mines such toxic substances, but remain oblivious of the same substances right there with them in the gadgets.

So, where are we? Learning from the tobacco experience, many similar action could be contemplated and effectively deployed. First off is making an informed decision. Think of tobacco packaging and advertising regulation! Including health warnings to err on the side of caution. ‎Next, the toxic content must be made known to potential users, including age limits below which its use is considered potentially harmful.

Another is about disposal information, emergency hotlines as well as contact numbers of addiction centres. When properly provided for, such information will relay to the public at large the notion that the cellphone must be kept at arm’s length until evidence to do otherwise is available.

Before that, calls by Dr Megawati and like-minded caring voices must be taken more seriously.

The writer, an NST columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector