Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

A minimum cigarette cost is just one step to a healthier society

Education, awareness and a package of incentives will deter more people from a deadly habit

Governments around the world have wrestled with the dilemma of balancing health objectives against revenue from smoking / AFP
Governments around the world have wrestled with the dilemma of balancing health objectives against revenue from smoking / AFP

When the UAE’s "sin tax" came in last October, doubling the price of cigarettes overnight, it was hoped it would force a significant number of smokers to give up the habit. The reality, of course, is not that straightforward. A higher upfront cost is the price some have paid for their life-threatening addiction and worse, some have moved to buying cheaper brands. Now health experts are urging the government to go further still and bring in a minimum price structure so that cigarettes priced at as little as Dh3 a packet will be less of a temptation to those fighting to overcome their addiction.

Trying to strike a balance between revenue and achieving health objectives is something governments around the world have wrestled with for years, with varying degrees of success. In Scotland, where 10,000 people die of smoking-related deaths every year, high taxation reduced the number of smokers from 28 per cent to 21 per cent in a decade. In Australia, a minimum cost of Dh58 for a packet of cigarettes has been mooted. In France, plain packaging has failed to reduce the number of smokers. A key objective unites them all: to reduce the number of people dying unnecessarily from an unhealthy and anti-social habit.

In the UAE, more than 900,000 adults use tobacco every day while smoking kills more than 2,900 people annually. Tobacco use costs the country $569 million in lost productivity and healthcare costs. There is an incentive at all levels of society – from government to employers and parents who want to live longer or discourage their children from taking up the habit – to make a common practice taboo. Raising the minimum cost is one deterrent. Research shows low-income smokers are most likely to smoke cheaper brands and develop a habit they can ill afford. Removing that temptation means they will save more money and improve their chances of living a healthy life. Doctors have warned taxing smokers could encourage them to start using stronger medwakh or buying illicit cigarettes. Financial penalties have to come hand in hand with a comprehensive education and awareness programme, starting at a young age. It also requires commercial premises such as restaurants to make it unacceptable to smoke and for those in positions of authority to lead by example. Last November, all 40 members of the Federal National Council voted in favour of pledging to give up smoking. Vowing to give up is just one step in a long road towards a healthier society but it is on the right track.