x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

It's time to act on smoking - no ifs, no butts

Comparing the way smoking is treated in the Emirates and California, it's clear to me that we need more vigorous action against tobacco.

I will never forget the first cigarette-smoking culture shock I received. I had recently moved back to the Emirates from England as an adolescent and was accompanying my family during a hospital visit to a family friend. What was of greater concern to me as we arrived was not the ill health of the admitted but that his relative was smoking at his bedside.

The scene was made more surreal by the complete acceptance of the act by all present, including the patient.

During my brief stay in the Emirates at that time, I found many more examples of tobacco tolerance.

Although barely 15, I could buy a pack of cigarettes or order a shisha anywhere they were sold, and was not nearly the youngest doing so. I routinely witnessed smoking in the presence of children, infants and pregnant women. Smoking seemed to be as acceptable as drinking coffee and enjoyed just as often.

When I migrated to California, I entered a parallel tobacco universe.

Smoking was banned in all commercial establishments, indoor public places, and eventually, in outdoor public areas, such as parks and beaches. Even throwing a cigarette butt outside your car window could get you a whopping US$1,000 (Dh3,700) fine.

In this alternate world, smoking was viewed as a dirty habit and smokers were routinely looked down on and cast away to do their dirty business.

Although extreme, the West Coast's non-tolerant environment made quitting much easier.

When I recently returned to the UAE, I found laws and attitudes towards smoking and tobacco in the UAE had come some way since the earlier lax days.

Federal laws forbidding smoking in health facilities, educational institutes, places of worship and private cars with children under the age of 12, and laws making the sale of tobacco to minors and tobacco advertisement illegal, had all been passed.

Local health authorities had launched numerous anti-smoking, campaigns. And more people understood, shared and discussed the harmful effects of smoking.

Although changes in tobacco laws are occurring within the Emirates, the rate at which they are happening is too slow. Dubai's initiative to double the price of cigarettes, for example, is a much-needed step in the right direction.

A pack of cigarettes in the Emirates, a nation with the fifth-highest GDP per capita in the world, costs around US$2.20 - the same price as a pack in Bangladesh, a country with the globe's 161st GDP per capita. This discrepancy is a prime example of how much more the nation must work on the tobacco issue.

To put a dent in tobacco's negative influence, laws must be taken to the national level, passed without further delay and enforced with greater stringency.

With facts such as smoking being one of the main causes of heart disease and that it accounts for 22 per cent of UAE deaths, the fight against tobacco must be met head on.

Strides in the UAE continue to be made in improving the country's overall health through better diet and increased exercise. Reduction in smoking is part and parcel of these programmes and should also be advanced rather than left to smoulder.