Smoking is among the leading contributors to premature death around the world, but laws meant to protect public health often work painfully slowly. In the UAE, an anti-tobacco law dating to 2009 that regulates the industry and requires widespread bans has been only partially introduced.
Yet every now and again, officials act with blazing speed to curb this health scourge. And that is what authorities in Sharjah have done to protect young lungs in their emirate.
As The National reported yesterday, Sharjah has made it illegal, effective immediately, for shops in exclusively residential areas, and those near schools, to sell or stock tobacco products. This is a significant and dramatic move that needs to be replicated across the Emirates.
If it is enforced properly, children will be the obvious beneficiaries. For one, the ban will help to remove the hazards of peer pressure; children often start smoking because they hang out with others who smoke. When these habits begin near school, say after class or on the trip home, they can be harder to break later in life. Grocery shops often have the habit of selling individual cigarettes, to make more profit or to sell more cigarettes. That is one of the factors that enables children to start smoking: it's cheap and accessible.
While authorities must do more to raise children's awareness of the dangers of smoking, making it harder for them to buy cigarettes in the first place is a logical starting point.
Of course the success of Sharjah's regulation will lie in the details: How will the rule be enforced? What is the definition of a "residential area"? And what is the buffer distance between schools and affected grocery stores?
Only with answers to these question will it be possible to know for certain how effective this new rule will be.
But the intention is sound. UAE authorities have taken a number of steps to tackle the issue of smoking in this country in recent years, including banning smoking in malls and other public places. Yet few moves have sought to protect children as comprehensively as this one.