ABU DHABI // When he lit up his first cigarette at the age of 16, Joe Akkawi hardly expected it to become a life-long habit.
Thirteen years later he is still smoking, although much less than before.
He has tried to quit several times, once for three years, but has always started again. He has now cut down from about two packs a day to just one pack a week.
Mr Akkawi, 29, a Jordanian Lebanese expatriate who was born and raised in the UAE, fears little can be done to cut the number of smokers.
He said that when he was a teenager, one of the main attractions of smoking was the thrill of hiding it from his parents.
“Unfortunately, you don’t think enough and now it’s a horrible habit,” he added. “Smoking at a young age is very influenced by friends.
“A teenager hardly wakes up and finds themselves thinking, ‘I will smoke’. People say they will have one, what’s the worst that could happen, and then it spirals.”
Of the 335 smokers who took part in the Al Aan TV/The National survey, two in five (40 per cent) started when they were 19 or younger.
Mr Akkawi, managing partner and co-founder of Paz Marketing in Dubai, said smokers tended to be in denial about the damage they were causing themselves.
“Whenever you get a chest infection and you can’t smoke you kind of kick it. The craving goes away and you think, ‘you know what? I’ve been good so I’ll just have one’.
“I’m sure the images [danger warnings on packs] do have very important messages for people – there is no denying smoking is one of the worst things you can do to your body – but, in general, smokers are in denial about the addiction.”
While price is a factor, Mr Akkawi believes the rise would have to be considerable to make much of a difference. “In the Middle East, cigarettes are cheaper than in the rest of the world. Dh7 is negligible,” he said.
While the planned rise to Dh14 would deter only one in five smokers (19 per cent), raising the price to Dh30 would put off half, and three in five (61 per cent) said they would quit if the price were Dh50.
Mr Akkawi also supports an indoor smoking ban. “In 2004, before the law came in, we used to smoke at our desk and the office stank,” he said. “It was disgusting. There were 30 people smoking all day. I agree with the internal smoking ban, in malls, because of younger people being exposed to second-hand smoke.
“I went to Kuwait and, sitting in this room, everyone started smoking. Even as a smoker I had this urge to say I don’t want to smoke.”
Ibrahim Stark, 19, a Jordanian student from Sharjah, has seen the effect of the three images – one of which shows the smoke at the end of a cigarette forming the shape of a skull – on his younger brother, and is convinced by the benefits of the new packaging.
“On younger people, they do [work]. My brother, who is 10, is scared of the cigarette packs.”
The same cannot be said of his older relatives. “At first I was encouraged and thought maybe some of my relatives would stop smoking but it had no impact.”
Raising the price, a topic discussed by GCC health ministers for several months, could also affect younger people, Mr Stark said.
But many disagree. In a country where many earn a high income, an increase would be little deterrent, said Tarik Kaddoumi, 32, a marketing manager.
“If people want to smoke, they want to smoke. It has nothing to do with pictures. People are immune to this.”