ABU DHABI // UAE University has been awarded a Dh3.6 million grant to study drug and alcohol use in the Emirates.
Funding for the two-year project has been provided by the International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (ICPA), a branch of the United Nations.
Prof Mohamed Baniyas, the university's provost, said the funds would cover the salaries of a full-time team researching a matter of vital interest to the UAE.
"Like all over the world, drug and alcohol dependency are very much stigmatised, so they don't get the attention they need," he said.
After meetings with the federal university's medical school over the past year, the ICPA signed the agreement, which will involve the National Rehabilitation Centre.
It will also include a public education strategy that Prof Baniyas hoped would help reduce the stigma attached to the subject.
"The first focus will be on smoking and its effects," he said. "Alcohol and drug use we will get to and we'll do that with the National Rehabilitation Centre, but the initial focus will be on smoking.
"It's easier to conduct and we can get good indicators to get the project going without the stigma attached to the other areas."
Founded in 1952, ICPA is active in more than 100 countries and focuses on initiatives to help people stop-smoking, along with advocacy and policy development related to alcohol and tobacco use.
The UAE began its relationship with ICPA about 25 years ago with smoking workshops for Abu Dhabi Police. Over the past three years they have given talks at Health Authority Abu Dhabi and worked with police in the capital to reduce the misconception that shisha is less harmful than cigarettes.
Dr Peter Landless, executive director of the ICPA, said of the collaboration with the university: "Such initiatives are important because prevention is where it's at. It is difficult to get people to stop smoking, so we try to curb initiation by creating awareness through the smoking-cessation programmes, which raise awareness of the damaging effects smoking has on your health and also impacts the mortality rate related to smoking."
He said ICPA would choose one of its academics to lecture at the university as part of the project.
Dr Mouawiya Alawad, the director of the institute of social and economic research at the National Research Foundation, said: "Years ago this problem [of addiction] was small but it's started to increase, not only in the UAE but across the whole GCC.
"GCC societies are starting to be affected by drug and alcohol abuse, things that are new to the society."
He said it was important to tackle such issues from an academic perspective, adding: "The UN knows about this problem and allocating this money to UAEU is a very good idea as they have experts there who can deal with it, especially in their medical school."
Last year, a study of 170,430 Emiratis in Abu Dhabi published in Chest Journal, the official publication of the American College of Chest Physicians, by Dr Mohammed Al Houqani, a UAEU academic, found about 24 per cent of men smoked, compared with only 0.8 per cent of women. Cigarettes were the most popular (77 per cent), followed by midwakh, or Arabic pipe (15 per cent), shisha (7 per cent) and cigars (less than 1 per cent).
During the first nine months of last year, 361 people were referred to the Public Prosecution in Dubai for drug abuse. The emirate, which has only one rehabilitation facility - for only 14 people - said in November that a centre with room for 272 patients would open in two years. It will care for people in police custody and is part of a Dh600m plan to relocate Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital.
In Dubai, the number of patients at the National Rehabilitation Centre rose by 30 per cent between 2010 and 2011.