NEW YORK // Once home to smoke-filled shisha dens and cheap tobacco, the Middle East is increasingly becoming a nicotine-free zone with ever-fewer places to light up. UN health chiefs say tough new anti-tobacco rules are being rolled out from Djibouti to Jordan, changing the stereotypical image of the Arab world as a smokers' paradise where people can feed their addiction in offices, restaurants, buses - and even hospitals.
According to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) latest report on anti-smoking policies, the Emirates is a regional trailblazer, where total smoking bans in enclosed public places covers almost one third of the population, slightly more even than in the United States. "Change is happening, the political commitment is increasing and smoking is becoming less socially acceptable, although it is not happening fast enough," said Fatimah El Awa, an adviser to WHO's regional anti-tobacco project.
"Now, we are seeing pictorial health warnings on cigarettes that cover 50 per cent of the packets - in places like Djibouti, Egypt, Iran and Jordan. This would have been impossible to imagine five years ago." This year's annual WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic paints a mixed image of smoking across a 22-nation bloc called the Eastern Mediterranean region, where Gulf Arabs are more restrained smokers than their counterparts across the Arab world.
The Bahrainis (where 6 per cent of adults smoke) and Saudis (7 per cent) light up considerably less than their brethren in Egypt (14 per cent) or the region's puffing champions in Tunisia (32 per cent) and Jordan (36 per cent), in statistics that WHO asserts may not be wholly accurate. As well as the addition of health warnings on cigarette packets in some countries, the experts laud Afghanistan, Djibouti, Iraq and Jordan for introducing or extending bans on smoking in public places, including restaurants, universities and official buildings.
The chain-smoking Jordanians have redoubled efforts this past year, with laws banning the sale of single cigarettes, introducing anti-smoking officers and ridding the capital, Amman, of billboards, vending machines and tobacco sponsorship advertising. Sweeping curbs announced in August by the government of Iraq, where 11 per cent of adults smoke, proved controversial, with many questioning whether bans on smoking in public buildings or selling cigarettes to those under 18 should rank so high on the troubled nation's agenda.
Syria's president, Bashar Assad, who has also been concerned at the ill effects of tobacco, in October issued a decree that bans smoking in many indoor public places and US$45 (Dh165.2) fines against offenders - even extending the ruling to cover the beloved shisha pipes, known locally as argileh. While the UAE's patchwork of anti-smoking rules, absence of a federal law and occasional policy u-turns has attracted criticism within the country, the view from abroad is a success story in which 29 per cent of the population has been freed from the perils of second-hand smoke in public places.
This puts it towards the top of the league table ahead of the US (28 per cent) and below Australia (96 per cent), well ahead of a global average in which 5.4 per cent of the world's population was covered by comprehensive smoke-free laws last year. The 138-page report likewise lauds the Emirates, where 8 per cent of adults smoke, for becoming one of only 17 countries globally to offer comprehensive help to quit smoking last year, with nicotine patches and national telephone lines to help smokers kick the habit.
This region's anti-smoking movement has witnessed its share of novelty initiatives, such as Bahraini officials handing out flyers to some 100,000 motorists on the King Fahd Causeway, which connects the island to Saudi Arabia, detailing the country's new tobacco-free zones. The Saudis got even more imaginative in June, when the charity Purity announced a competition in which would-be grooms quit smoking in a bid to win an all-expenses paid wedding - a cumbersome expense in the desert kingdom.
Religion has even entered the equation, with Dr El Awa describing a total ban on tobacco in Mecca and Medina since 2002, enforced throughout the Haj pilgrimages, as creating "the only two cities in the world that I would claim are completely tobacco-free". Opinions are divided as to whether the holy month of Ramadan, in which practising Muslims abstain from putting food, drink or tobacco past their lips during daylight hours, is a help or a hindrance to creating a smoking-free Middle East.
While Dr El Awa notes that "in Ramadan, every smoker thinks about quitting", her colleague, Dr Hani Algouhmani, the regional co-ordinator for the Framework Convention Alliance against tobacco, warns the holy month also has its pitfalls. "When Muslims break the fast, they also tend to smoke shisha, it has become a habit in some countries," said Dr Algouhmani. "In the evening, they are sitting at home, in cafes or restaurants and smoking hubbly bubbly. They smoke a lot more than perhaps they would otherwise."
The customary hookah pipes are seen as one of the biggest impediments to rolling out smoking bans, although Dr El Awa is in no doubt they are as dangerous as cigarettes, saying: "Smoking shisha in a room for one hour is the equivalent of smoking 100-200 cigarettes." Experts also cite the continued low-price of cigarettes as hampering efforts to rid the region of tobacco, as they try to convince officials to make capital cities from Tunis to Damascus and Beirut smoke-free zones over the next couple of years.
"In the coming 10 years, I would like to see a real reduction in prevalence," said Dr El Awa. "We will focus our efforts in working with countries to strengthen legislation and enforcement, and make sure the tobacco industry is not interfering to stop the wheel that is turning on tobacco control." @Email:email@example.com