Can the Arab world envision a tobacco-free future?

ABU DHABI: When it comes to smoking, all the facts are known, but they turned out not to be a cure. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death, and smoking causes more than 8 million deaths per year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

To put that into perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required national lockdowns, has so far seen 3.52 million significantly lower deaths.

Low- and middle-income countries pay a disproportionate price because they account for over 80 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion smokers.

The Eastern Mediterranean region has a relatively high number of tobacco users and this number is growing rapidly.

A youth smokes a water pipe (Shisha) in a Dubai cafe on May 31, 2008. The nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive and smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, more than 20 types or different subtypes of cancer, and many other debilitating health problems. (File / AFP)

The good news is that the Gulf States are using the full range of measures to reduce tobacco consumption.

The largest of the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia, with a population of over 34 million, has taken a number of steps to stem the threat. These include increasing sales taxes and fines, conducting anti-smoking campaigns, establishing quit smoking clinics, and introducing dedicated mobile apps.

“Saudi Arabia has an ambitious tobacco control strategic plan to reduce smoking rates from 12.7% to 5% by 2030,” Dr Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, Saudi Minister of Health, said in 2019.

In 2017, the Saudi National Committee on Tobacco Control imposed a 100% tax on all tobacco products and banned smoking in public spaces, including shopping malls, parks and workplaces.


An entertainer walks past an Emirati as he lights a cigarette at the Meydan race track ahead of the start of the Dubai World Cup on March 27, 2010. The nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive and smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, over 20 different types or subtypes of cancer and many other debilitating health problems. (File / AFP)

In addition, the Saudi Ministry of Health has expanded its specialist clinics to 900 sites across the country.

As a result, 2019 data showed an increase in clinic visits of 213%, a decrease in tobacco imports of 54%, and a 307% increase in the number of people quitting smoking.

The neighboring United Arab Emirates face an equally daunting challenge. The authorities have set a target of reducing tobacco consumption from 21.6% to 15.7% among men and from 1.9% to 1.66% among women by the end of the year.

By far the most common form of tobacco use in the UAE is smoking (77.4 percent), followed by midwakh (a small pipe used to smoke tobacco) at 15 percent, water pipes at 6.8. percent and cigars at 0.66 percent.

The government has launched awareness campaigns on the harms of smoking through regular means as well as on social media, said Dr Buthaina Abdulla bin Belaila, head of noncommunicable diseases at the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention. United.


A man smokes a water pipe (Shisha) in a Dubai cafe on May 31, 2008. The nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive and smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, more than 20 types or different subtypes of cancer, and many other debilitating health conditions. (File / AFP)

“The country has started to impose an excise tax on tobacco products which has led to a doubling of the price consumers pay, which will translate into reduced consumption, according to studies,” he said. she declared.

“The UAE has also expanded the offer of smoking cessation services by increasing the number of clinics and training more doctors to offer such services, which has resulted in an increase in the number of those who wish to quit smoking.”

The Oman Medical Journal study found that in the UAE, smoking prevalence rates were highest among Arab expatriates (31.9%), followed by non-Arab expatriates (22.6%) and Emiratis (21 , 6%).

According to Dr Muhammed Anas Ayoob, a lung disease specialist at the NMC Specialized Hospital in Abu Dhabi, this could be due to the fact that smoking is prevalent in countries such as Jordan and Egypt, home countries of many Arab expatriates from the United Arab Emirates.

Living far from loved ones and work-related stress can be some of the reasons for heavy smoking by expatriates.

Among the GCC countries, Oman has the lowest tobacco consumption rate, but future projections suggest it cannot afford complacency.

The prevalence of smoking among men in Oman (which stood at 17.9% in 2010) is expected to reach 33.3% by 2025, according to a study published in 2017 in the Oman Medical Journal.

This figure is still low compared to the figures forecast for 2025 for the other Arab countries: Lebanon (45.4%), Bahrain (48.8%) and Egypt (49.9%).

The study claimed that prior to 1970, the smoking ban in all indoor and outdoor public spaces in Omar was enforced through public flogging and prison terms.

Nowadays, the government takes a very different approach: it has set up smoking cessation clinics and imposed a complete ban on the advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products.

The study also noted that Oman does not have manufacturing facilities for tobacco products, so more than 80% of domestic demand is met by imports from the United Arab Emirates, followed by Germany. , Switzerland, Poland and Turkey.

In Qatar, a 2021 report on the epidemiology of smoking indicates that the government’s National Vision 2030 and the Ministry of Public Health Strategy 2018-2022 aim to reduce the prevalence of smoking by 5 percent.

The Qatar Ministry of Health is committed to establishing a tobacco consumption monitoring system and conducting regular smoking surveys in accordance with the recommendations of the Global Tobacco Monitoring System.

He also intends to offer services to smokers who want to get rid of the habit, including a helpline and a local website.


A woman smokes a water pipe (Shisha) in a Dubai cafe on May 31, 2008. The nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive and smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory disease, more than 20 types or different subtypes of cancer, and many other debilitating health conditions. (File / AFP)

The ministry said it will establish a practical and comprehensive tax model on tobacco products, including tariffs and taxes on the production and sale of tobacco.

“Data from countries of all income levels show that cigarette price increases are very effective in reducing demand,” said Dr Ayoob, from NMC Specialist Hospital.

“Higher prices encourage quitting and prevent initiation into smoking. They also reduce relapses in those who have quit and reduce consumption in continued users.

“Several reviews have shown that a 10% price increase leads to a 2.5% to 5% drop in cigarette consumption.”


Image caption A photo taken on September 28, 2017 shows a man organizing packs of cigarettes at a shop in Ras al-Khaimah. – October 1, 2017. The nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive and smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory disease, over 20 different types or subtypes of cancer and many other health problems debilitating. (File / AFP)

On whether e-cigarettes are a healthier alternative, Dr Ayoob says smoking appears to be more harmful than vaping.

“It doesn’t mean vaping is safe. Electronic cigarettes produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavors, and other chemicals that help make the aerosol. Users inhale this aerosol into their lungs. Spectators are also at risk of inhaling this aerosol when the user exhales through the air, ”he said.

Dr Ayoob pointed out that the United States Food and Drug Administration has not confirmed that vaping helps people quit smoking. On the contrary, many electronic cigarette users fail to get rid of their addiction, he said.

“According to a report, 58.8% of people who recently used e-cigarettes also continued to smoke cigarettes,” he said.

Twitter: @ farahheiba94


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