Abu Dhabi: Although tobacco use plays a role in causing 68 per cent of worldwide deaths from non-communicable diseases, an average of 6.24 billion cigarettes are sold in the UAE each year, a senior health official said in the capital on Wednesday.
At the same time, the use of sheesha is growing, especially among the youth, with more than 1,000 cafes in operation across the country, said Dr Widad Al Maidour, head of tobacco control at the UAE Ministry of Health (MoH).
“To protect our population from the risks of this harmful habit however, we must make the UAE completely smoke-free in public places. At the same time, we also need more research on the effect of legislation, smoke cessation programmes and mass media campaigns in helping people quit,” she said.
Dr Widad was speaking at the first Arabian Gulf Public Health Research Conference, which saw medical experts from across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries discuss trends and challenges in combatting non-communicable diseases.
One of the major concerns raised was the prevalence of smoking among GCC residents. According to Dr Tawfik Khoja, director general for the executive board at the GCC Health Ministers Council, one in every three people in the region is a smoker. As estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), this number is set to increase by up to one per cent each year without effective community awareness and smoke cessation initiatives.
It is also concerning that about 20 per cent of all teens between the ages of 15 and 19 years smokes in the GCC, Dr Khoja said.
“This is why we are working hard on a drive to increase the price of tobacco products in the GCC, as this has proven to be effective internationally in reducing tobacco use. While we have consensus among GCC countries, there is still some opposition towards raising the price from one nation,” he added.
Dr Widad also highlighted that a UAE survey undertaken in collaboration with the WHO had shown that the proportion of children aged 13 to 15 years who had tried smoking had increased from 20 per cent in 2002 to 29.2 per cent in 2013.
“There is also positive news: the proportion of children in the same group who have never tired smoking also increased from 9.8 per cent in 2002 to 16 per cent last year ,” she added.
The MoH official added that the UAE now needs to work on stemming indirect advertising, which encourages tobacco use by depicting it on TV shows, movies and other programmes.
“We have long had a ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, and the passing of the Federal Law on Tobacco Control [No 15 of 2009] yesterday strengthens these regulations. We need to establish other initiatives to prevent tobacco use, and support smokers to quit,” Dr Widad said.
These initiatives should include more smoke cessation clinics for addicts, as well as the use of movie advertisements and social media to reach target audiences.
Other experts recommended the use of advertisements that highlight the negative health impacts of smoking, as well as the methods used by the tobacco industry to manipulate people towards using their products.