x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

GCC countries warned of heavy price for smoking

The magnitude of tobacco consumption is a huge issue, health experts say.

Tawfik A M Khoja speaks at the 14th Gulf Symposium on Tobacco Control in Dubai.
Tawfik A M Khoja speaks at the 14th Gulf Symposium on Tobacco Control in Dubai.

Countries in the Arabian Gulf will pay a heavy price in terms of public health unless something is done to tackle the numbers of smokers, say doctors.

"The magnitude of tobacco consumption is a huge issue," said Prof Tawfik Khoja, the director general of the Executive Board of the GCC Health Ministers' Council.

He was speaking at the opening day of the 14th Gulf Symposium on Tobacco Control.

"It's become an issue of all the nations, with the prevalence increasing over the last 10 years.

"Now the GCC is paying a high price in terms of chronic illnesses, like hypertension and diabetes."

The likelihood of developing non-communicable diseases (NCD's) increases "10-fold" if you are a smoker, said the doctor.

In the GCC, said Dr Khoja, about 10 to 15 per cent of youths smoke some form of tobacco.

"This really reflects the huge consumption of tobacco - be it cigarettes, or hubbly bubbly."

In some countries, like Yemen and Bahrain, children as young as nine are picking up the habit, he added.

In Dubai, Dr Tarek Lashin, a dermatologist by trade who also visits schools in the Emirates to speak to students about smoking, sees children as young as 10 who are addicts.

About half of the 30-plus patients Dr Lashin sees a month successfully stop. But it is by no means enough.

"There needs to be more law enforcement and cooperation among various authorities," he said.

Mutual efforts to tackle the problem - such as increasing the tax on tobacco products from 100 per cent (where it currently stands) to 200 per cent - have been repeatedly opposed by tobacco companies.

Now governments must move their focus from targeting communities to fighting the companies who rely on their addictions, said Dr Khoja.

He said: "The pressure from the tobacco industry is relentless, and is a constant obstacle. It has abolished all our efforts.

"But we are - all the GCC countries - still aiming for a 200 per cent tax."

There are also problems at a local level, said Dr Wedad Al Maidoor, head of the Ministry of Health's tobacco control committee.

The federal anti-tobacco law Number 15, although issued in early 2009 by the President, Sheikh Khalifa has yet to come into effect.

Despite these delays, things are working, said Dr Al Maidoor, albeit, very slowly.

"I think it's working. Maybe we can't see it working over the course of one year, but over several years [we will see an effect]."

Once the much-exalted by-laws are finally put in place, the country will see a marked improvement in tobacco consumption, she said.

But the ministry continues to wait for approval.

"We are working hard to get the answer for the ministry."

Another proposal, to double the price of cigarettes in Dubai, is also being addressed.

First mentioned in April at the World Congress of Cardiology, the price rise has since been blocked by various authorities and ministries.

Last week, Abu Dhabi Municipality took things into their own hands by announcing it was to begin fining cafes and restaurants in malls that continue to allow smoking.

Without any recent data on smoking in the country, stakeholders are not obliged to take a stronger stance, she said. "We will report, next year, on the percentage of youths that smoke, and the percentage of adults that also have a habit. Then, we can plan more."

With campaigns and initiatives more focused on educating people in the health industry, the UAE - and other countries - are limiting themselves, said Dr Fahimah Al Awadhi, the director of pharmacy and medical supply at the Ministry of Health.

"We need to speak to people directly. Yes, with things like the symposium, we speak to doctors, but do they relay the message to the outside population? It [our current strategy] needs more work."

Now is as good a time as any to up the ante, given Ramadan is around the corner, bringing with it a host of bad habits, said the doctor.

"The tents [during Ramadan] are full of smoke. What we really need is more studies on the region, which can then be presented to policy makers.

"We need to do studies on, for example, air pollution, so that we can make people aware of the affects of secondhand smoke. And these studies should be long-term, taking anything up to four years."

In order to stop repeating warnings,and start making a real difference, GCC countries need to work together, said Dr Khoja.

"We have to address this together. All of us, every citizen."

zalhassani@thenational.ae