Imported cigarettes and other tobacco products must carry a graphic health warning on packs from today.
One of three approved images will occupy half the space on both sides of a cigarette pack. A third of the remaining space will display written warnings.
The new packaging has been introduced across the GCC in an effort to stop young smokers from becoming addicted, said Dr Wedad Al Maidoor, head of the tobacco control committee at the Ministry of Health.
“Young smokers will seriously start to think about the dangers of smoking and either stop or cut down the number of cigarettes they are smoking.”
Dr Al Maidoor said the graphics would also prevent tobacco companies from using packaging to promote their product.
“With their packaging, they are fooling the customer into thinking smoking is something that is cool and nice – that it is a part of your life. Now this will be taken very seriously. The graphic cannot be removed or peeled off – it’s part of the packaging.”
There are also plans for completely plain packaging – where nothing but the graphic image will be in colour and the brand name will be significantly smaller.
“The human brain is more attracted to the colour than the pictures, but by having plain packaging more focus will be placed on the image,” Dr Al Maidoor said.
Smokers may not see the new packaging for a while, with tobacco sellers given several months to implement the regulations.
Existing stock will continue to be sold until they are exhausted, which is expected to take about three months, said Abdulla Al Muaini of the Emirates Standardisation and Metrology Authority, which is in charge of the new packaging.
“What will happen is, they can’t place anything new in the market without pictures.”
Sellers who break the law will be subject to a fine and legal action.
Although some people who have been smoking for years might not take any notice of the packaging, “once people see these bad pictures, they might think more”, Mr Al Muaini said.
Hardened smokers will take time to convince, but the packaging is another step towards full implementation of the 2009 federal anti-tobacco law, said Dr Khaled Al Jaberi of the Health Authority–Abu Dhabi.
With the new packaging, “people will come to know what the consequences of smoking are, but the most important thing is the implementation of the law”, Dr Al Jaberi said.
A proposed increase in prices – which was to be introduced along with the new packaging – is still under review.
The UAE and rest of the GCC still hope to introduce a 200 per cent tax on tobacco products, Tawfik Khoja, director general of the executive board of the GCC Health Ministers’ Council, said in June.
Dr Al Maidoor said moves to increase taxes had been blocked by tobacco companies.
"Tobacco companies were very resistant, and they are still resistant in the other GCC countries,” she said. “They are giving the message that no matter what you do, people will still smoke. But that is not true and we’ve seen how these policies can work.”
The Ministry of Finance is responsible for any changes in the price of tobacco products, and has been in talks with the Ministry of Health for several years.
"The Ministry of Finance said they need more time,” Dr Al Maidoor said. “First they want to control smuggling and then raise the tax. They’re approaching it step by step.”