Two-fifths of the UAE's teenagers use a drug as addictive as heroin. While tobacco products are illegal for those under the age of 18, they are widely available for under-age youth in Abu Dhabi, as The National reports today. "They never really have a hard time getting their hands on a pack," a 17-year-old student said. The emirate's uneven enforcement in policing tobacco sales to minors is part of the reason why.
Although federal law says vendors can be penalised for selling tobacco to minors with one year in jail and fines up to Dh1 million, insufficient implementation of punitive measures is resulting in a spike of youthful users. The Ministry of Health's estimates that 40 per cent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 are smokers, up from 24 per cent five years ago.
This under-age addiction has its costs. While under half of teen smokers studied in the US go on to become chain smokers as adults, they are also more likely to abuse other drugs and alcohol than non-smoking teens. It's not only the physical health of adolescents at stake; tobacco creates a huge burden on national health-care systems as smokers age.
Although a campaign to educate the public about the adverse health effects associated with the traditional medwakh is planned, a move to increase the price of tobacco may help. Rules are also being proposed by the Ministry of Health to prevent the sale of cigarettes near school districts.
An Abu Dhabi-wide ban on indoor smoking is slated for 2011. While making fewer places friendly to smokers will diminish its dangers and appeal, more can be done to prevent minors from getting their hands on tobacco products to begin with. For its part, Dubai can show the way forward as it has developed a programme against under-age smoking that is strictly adhered to. That the rest of the country follows suit is all the more critical since the cigarettes available in this region tend to have higher concentrations of nicotine and carcinogens than those in the US or Europe.
The dangers of smoking are real and widely known. While adults should be able to make their own decisions about tobacco use, they are typically teenagers when they take up the habit. More must be done to make sure that today's adolescents here in the UAE don't have the option.