Dubai: Buying banned tobacco products in the UAE is as easy as grocery shopping despite government efforts to wipe out the health menace.
Chewing tobacco, popular with many residents from the Indian subcontinent, is readily available in older neighbourhoods of Dubai and Sharjah.
Residents are also lighting up cigarette-like ‘beedies' at will.
Though legal in many parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, UAE authorities have a zero-tolerance policy against these tobacco-based substances, which are known to cause cancer and trigger heart attacks
But despite the risk of fines, jail time and deportation, blacklisted goods like gutkha — crumbs of betel nuts and tobacco — and beedies are available under the table in many grocery stores in crowded alleys of Bur Dubai and Karama.
Meanwhile, niswar (lumps of tobacco and grass) is discreetly dished out at many traditional bakeries preparing Pakistani bread items.
A 32-year-old Pakistani IT specialist, who takes a mix of niswar and gutkha, said: "It gives you a kick at first, then knocks you out. I do four moulds of niswar and a packet of gutkha at once, almost every night before I sleep. It puts me to bed nicely. It may be wrong, but it's better than getting drunk or doing drugs. This is my pastime but I'm trying to give it up."
In Sharjah, paan is widely available in the Bangladesh Market, off Arouba Street at Rolla. The minty smell of the betel leaf and nut wraps fills the air even though paan is illegal.
But odour is not the only trace these chewy mixtures of tobacco, herbs and spices leave behind. Users spit out mouthfuls of a reddish juice built up from eating the taboo products. Countless streets and building facades have been marred by streaks of paan or gutkha spit.
Misunderstood at large
A paan fan said the habit is often "misunderstood" by society at large. "I like to have paan on special occasions, like when there's a kitty party. I know it's not allowed here, but I don't feel like there's anything wrong with it. I'm not the one spitting all over the place; you don't have to do that to have paan," said the Bangladeshi maid.
In Dubai, paan spitting can attract fines up to hundreds of dirhams. Authorities have for decades tried to stamp out the illegal trade, but heavy demand from residents has ensured a lucrative market for paan.
Struggling to curb the rampant trade, municipality officials have turned to residents for help and are offering cash rewards for information on tobacco vice dens.