x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The smoking gun of social change

Anti-tobacco laws still haven't gone fully into effect. But change is gradual on any important social issue.

Why would anyone want to buy a pack of cigarettes displaying a graphic image of burnt fingertips, a skull formed of smoke or a woman holding a deformed baby?

Cigarette smokers are driven by different demons, but studies have shown that graphic images depicting the serious consequences of smoking cigarettes can help to induce people to quit. The World Health Organisation reports that public-health messages are far more effective when images are used, instead of just logical arguments.

Beginning with Canada in 2001, 28 countries have introduced graphic warnings, including Australia and some Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt. Earlier this year, the UAE, in collaboration with the GCC Standardisation Organisation, approved a rule that requires one of these three images to cover at least 30 and 50 per cent of cigarette packaging. The deadline to stop importing old, unmarked packs was in August and sellers were given the interim period to sell existing stock.

Starting from this Tuesday, January 1, a second deadline comes into force. As The National reported yesterday, cigarette packets that don't display the graphic warnings will be liable to be seized by the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology. Sellers could be fined between Dh10,000 and Dh35,000.

The campaign is one plank in a raft of anti-tobacco regulations, in line with the federal law on tobacco control approved in 2011, which forbids: the sale of tobacco products to people under 18: smoking in cars in the presence of children under 12; smoking in houses of worships, educational institutes, and health or sports facilities; and selling sweets resembling tobacco products. Other regulations covered smoking in shopping malls and shisha cafes near residential areas.

Nobody is going to pretend that all of those 2011 regulations have been fully and effectively enforced. Take the ban on smoking in shopping malls, for example - business owners have resisted, even paying multiple fines, saying that customers could never adjust.

Smoking, with all of its addictive grasp on people's psyches, is an interesting test case. Social change, even in the self-evident interests of society, is a slow, often frustrating process. As the UAE grapples with other issues such as unsafe driving, labour rights and the empowerment of women, patience is an invaluable virtue.