x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Banned tobacco still on sale

Municipality officials say they are laying low, waiting for dealers to "forget" last week's raid and make a mistake.

The municipality plans to enforce tougher rules on the sale of naswar, which is centred in the Nakheel area, above.
The municipality plans to enforce tougher rules on the sale of naswar, which is centred in the Nakheel area, above.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // A week after police raids on naswar sellers, the only ones saying the banned chewing tobacco is no longer available in the emirate are the dealers.

Addicts of the chewy green leaf still crowd alleyways in the Nakheel souq each night as darkness falls.

"You won't get any in Nakheel. Here, there's nothing," says one shop owner as men push into his shoe store to ask for naswar before he tells them in Urdu to shut up and get out.

Men throng into his small shop, which is piled with plastic sandals, floral blankets and prayer mats. They seek what is concealed under the counter: small plastic pouches of moist balls of "nass".

Many enter holding a single dirham, enough for their evening and morning fix.

Naswar dealers have become increasingly cagey since police seized 62 kilograms in raids last week.

With a stranger in the shop, those who try to push a coin into the merchant's hands expecting a bag of tobacco are sent away with a stick of miswak, a twig used for cleaning teeth, and ushered out.

Some linger in the alleyway as the shopkeeper continues his spiel.

"Yes, we used to sell it," says the merchant, who has lived in RAK for two years. "But nobody sells it here any more."

Just three days after the police raid it was possible to find naswar dealers within minutes of arriving at the souq. Non-users and addicts were quick to give directions to several suppliers.

Even an off-duty police officer gave directions after boasting of his profession and showing the patrons of a cafeteria a photo of himself in uniform on his BlackBerry.

When asked why he did not want to report the banned trade, he said it did not concern police as long as it did not affect Emiratis.

"Why should I care what people do?" he asked. "It's their business, not mine."

With reports emerging of Emirati teenagers using nass, he may soon find it is his business.

Despite a 2008 municipal campaign against the banned leaf, the naswar trade does not seem to have faltered. Municipality officials have said "it is too difficult" to eradicate a trade so profitable and popular.

After last week's raids, dealers had their shops closed for up to a week and were fined between Dh1,000 and Dh10,000.

Officials said such light penalties were not enough to stop the trade. Traders repeatedly reopened their businesses from the same premises, regardless of numerous closures.

Dubai Municipality's successful 2008 campaign against the betel leaf trade threatened those caught selling or preparing betel leaf with deportation and offered a reward of Dh5,000 for reports on where it was sold and made.

At the same time, it ran a public-awareness campaign with advertisements saying, "Spitting in public areas is something llamas do".

No maximum penalty exists in RAK but the municipality plans to enforce tougher rules.

"We will work on the rules for harder punishments," says Adel Al Suwaidi, the manager of the municipality's Public Health and Environment Department. "In future, we will stop this trade in RAK."

But for now, his department has no plans for further raids on homes where they suspect the tobacco is being processed.

"The problem is, if we go there now we will only find very small quantities," says Mr Al Suwaidi. "I need them to settle down and forget."

In the meantime, the trade continues.