ABU DHABI // Grisly images on cigarette packs warning of the dangers of smoking will do little to put smokers off the habit, a new survey suggests.
All cigarette packs will be required by law to carry the images from Tuesday, January 1, ending the grace period given to retailers to sell their old stock.
Since August, no new packs were supposed to enter the country without the images, said Mohammad Saleh Badri, acting director general of the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology.
Shops caught selling the old cigarette packs can now be fined up to Dh35,000. "We gave them until the end of this year to get rid of this stock. After January 1, they can be penalised," Mr Badri said.
Dr Wedad Al Maidoor, head of the tobacco control committee at the Ministry of Health, said the deadline was "a good achievement" that would help to prevent young adults and teenagers from starting smoking.
The survey, conducted for Al Aan TV and The National by the international pollster YouGov, found that of 1,473 respondents, about a quarter (24 per cent) were smokers.
Researchers conducted the survey in late November and early December, when the new packs had been in the shops for more than a month.
Almost all the smokers (93 per cent) had seen them, but half (49 per cent) said they hardly noticed them and the images would make little difference.
Those who smoked only occasionally were more likely to be influenced than hardened smokers. While only two in five (42 per cent) frequent smokers said the new packs would affect them, two-thirds of occasional smokers said the same.
The proposed increase in the price of a packet of cigarettes to Dh14 may not be effective either.
Fewer than a fifth of smokers (19 per cent) would give up if the price were increased to Dh14. Another 35 per cent might consider it.
Only at much higher prices did the numbers shift substantially. At Dh50, three in five (61 per cent) would quit. While that is more than six times the current UAE price (Dh7-8), it is comparable with some western countries.
In the UK, a packet of cigarettes costs the equivalent of Dh37. In Australia, the most expensive country, it is Dh60. The UAE price is similar to that in most other Arab countries.
Perhaps surprisingly, occasional smokers were less sensitive to a small increase in the price to Dh14, with just 14 per cent saying it would discourage them.
But twice as many frequent smokers (27 per cent) as occasional smokers (13 per cent) said they would continue to buy cigarettes regardless of the price.
Nevertheless, Dr Khaled Al Jaberi, manager of the non-communicable disease department at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, believes both the new packaging and even a relatively small price increase will help with their main goal of dissuading young people from starting smoking.
"This mainly has a significant effect on young people who are yet to start or get addicted," he said.
"If you go and talk to people who are already smokers, most likely it is not going to affect them that much - unless they already have the desire to stop."
That focus on young people seems correct; two in five smokers (40 per cent) started in their teens, and nine out of 10 (90 per cent) had started by the end of their twenties.
A further step - recently taken in Australia - would be to introduce plain packaging. Cigarettes there are now sold in olive green packs with graphic images but without brand colours or logos.
Professor Andrew Mitchell, who teaches at Melbourne Law School, said the Australian model - high prices combined with unattractive packaging - had succeeded in "increasing consumer knowledge about the negative health effects of smoking, encouraging tobacco users to quit smoking and discouraging smoking uptake or relapse."
Dana Shadid, a project manager for Al Aan TV, believes smokers are aware of the impact of their habit, but tend to disregard the side-effects. "Unless they are personally harmed by cigarettes, they will continue thinking that it will not harm them personally," she said.
"The new packaging and even an increase in prices will not stop someone who is addicted. Unfortunately, the only way for a smoker to quit or dramatically decrease the number of cigarettes smoked per day is to personally be affected by smoking."
Mobisher Rabbani, a diplomatic consultant who has lived in the UAE most of his life, said a change in culture was needed for there to be a real shift in the smoking figures.
"Right now, there is no psychological awareness out there," he said. "Smoking is a very normal thing, I think."
Some shopowners said smokers were being choosy about which packs they bought. One in Abu Dhabi said many preferred not to have packs with an image of a woman and a baby. "But the image of the skull is not important," he said.
The third image, which shows the tips of a smoker's fingers turned to ash, was also unpopular, but the shopowner had noticed no difference in whether people chose to buy cigarettes.
Health ministry officials will meet members of the National Health Council on Sunday for a final discussion on full implementation of the 2009 anti-smoking law, which provides for a ban on smoking in many public places.
"Then, from there, we give the report to the Executive Council," said Dr Al Maidoor.
The survey found strong support even among smokers for smoking to be outlawed in some public places, with around two thirds saying it should be banned in malls (70 per cent), restaurants (61 per cent) and offices (66 per cent).
However, most smokers said their habit should remain legal on the street (60 per cent) and in bars (57 per cent) cafes (57 per cent) and nightclubs (62 per cent).
A significant minority of smokers want it banned at home (32 per cent), in their cars (33 per cent) and even on the street (24 per cent).
The law also requires graphic health warnings to be displayed on shisha products, although implementation of that provision is still awaiting approval.