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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

A clear sign that people are ignoring the risks of shisha

Some smokers mistakenly think swapping cigarettes for the water pipe is better for them

Addiction specialists are reporting a rise in clients with shisha habits. Reem Mohammed / The National
Addiction specialists are reporting a rise in clients with shisha habits. Reem Mohammed / The National

There are few experiences more quintessentially Middle Eastern than a visit to your local shisha cafe. Tucked away in shady corners of our cities, these establishments are hubs of community − places where old friends and new acquaintances get together for hours of conversation, fuelled by strong, sweet cardamom coffee and shrouded in thick plumes of fragrant smoke. Romanticism aside, though, these convivial and often endearingly down-at-heel spaces have a dark side. While a good chat never hurt anyone, and recent studies suggest that coffee, taken in moderation, can even have health benefits, tobacco is an undisputed killer. Every year, close to six million people die of smoking-related illnesses globally. According to figures from 2016, almost 3,000 of those fatalities occur in the UAE.

The message about cigarettes appears to be getting through here, with one in four smokers having quit since the government introduced a 100 per cent tax on tobacco products, including shisha, in October last year. However, it appears that many have simply substituted one bad habit for another. Coinciding with the drop in cigarette smoking is a rise in the use of the super-strength pipe tobacco medwakh, and shisha. Many have made the shift to shisha under the mistaken impression that it is a healthier choice. Yet some studies show that in a one-hour shisha smoking session, it is possible to inhale an amount of smoke equivalent to five packets of standard cigarettes.

Now, as reported in today’s paper, addiction specialists are seeing a rise in clients with shisha habits. This anecdotal evidence is positive in many ways. After all, the first step on the road to any kind of recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem. But it is also indicative of a worrying spike in shisha use. While tobacco causes fewer social problems than other addictions, it has a devastating effect on physical wellbeing and damages the economy, costing the UAE an annual $569 million in lost productivity and healthcare costs. The belief that shisha is less hazardous than cigarettes might stem from the array of enticing fruit flavours it comes in and the lack of health warnings − as are now compulsory on all tobacco packaging − on display in the places where it is provided. Adopting this measure could improve awareness and might even make people reconsider before taking their first puff of the day.