Starting with cigarettes, the packaging of all tobacco products will have to carry images of the damage they cause to health.
Cigarette packs to feature graphic warnings
Cigarette packs in the UAE will be required to have a graphic picture showing the ill effects of smoking, starting in August.
The cabinet has approved the decision, and five photos were selected out of 10 World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, said Wedad Al Maidoor, the head of the tobacco control committee at the Ministry of Health.
"Cigarette packs now are nicely labelled and attractive, which is far from the truth in terms of what it does to your health," Dr Al Maidoor said. "But with this new requirement, there will be a big picture of reality that users cannot avoid."
The images will appear first on cigarette packs, and then on all tobacco products, including shisha tobacco. The news coincides with Dubai's move to double the price of cigarettes through taxation, also slated to begin in August.
The GCC Standardization Organization has also approved the images, and implementation is expected across the region.
"We're even thinking of partnering with the municipalities to require cafes that serve shisha to distribute the images," Dr Al Maidoor said. "They would attach the photo to the apparatus whenever a customer orders a shisha."
The WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control calls for large, clear health warnings "that may be in the form of a picture" and cover between 30 and 50 per cent of the pack.
Several studies have proven the positive results such warnings have on cigarette consumption, Dr Al Maidoor said.
A 2004 study of 616 smokers by the University of Waterloo in Canada, a country where picture warnings are mandated, demonstrated this. Approximately one fifth of participants in the study reported smoking less as a result of the labels. Participants reported negative emotional responses to the warnings including fear (44 per cent) and disgust (58 per cent), and the smokers who reported greater negative emotions were more likely to have quit, attempted to quit or reduced their smoking three months later.
Dr Nooshin Bazargani, head of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Emirates Cardiac Society, welcomed the move.
"This and the taxation are an important step forward, but they cannot work alone," she said. "It should be combined with other efforts, including banning the advertising of tobacco on all forms of public media. This would really make a difference."
Meanwhile a law calling for a federal tax on tobacco, which was proposed in 2010, is still awaiting cabinet approval.
"It's a long process for the country to put something like this into place," Dr Al Maidoor said. "At the time we proposed the tax, we were going through a financial crisis, and this could have also played a role."
Last year, revenue from customs duty on tobacco products was about Dh13 billion, and a federal tax would likely double this amount, Dr Al Maidoor said.
Currently, the customs duty on tobacco products is 100 per cent of their import value, but this accounts for only 28 to 30 per cent of the retail price. A federal tax would increase this by a similar amount.
"Yes, that is minimal, but it will at least give us a foundation to build on," Dr Al Maidoor said. "Once the regulation is in place, it will be much easier for us to increase it in the future."
A portion of the revenue would be used towards anti-tobacco awareness and the treatment of chronic smoking-related diseases.
Smokers say that while they are not looking forward to the move, they understand it is in the best interest of public health.
"Sure, it's not great that we're going to have to pay more, but it's for a better cause," said Ahmad Taleb, 25. "Even those who do buy cigarettes will be reluctant to share it with others. I would feel much better if I knew my younger brother would find it difficult to get his hands on a cigarette."
Others say the country still has a long way to go.
"It won't make me smoke any less," said Mohammed Masri, a Palestinian flight attendant based in Dubai.
"I have always bought cigarettes in Europe, where it costs about €10 [Dh48]. Another Dh5 is nothing."