x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

It's nicotine, but don't call it a habit

Coinciding with World No Tobacco Day, a study by Pfizer finds smokers in the country pessimistic about their chances of quitting.

According to a regional study, 90 per cent of UAE respondents believe their ability to quit smoking depends entirely on will power.
According to a regional study, 90 per cent of UAE respondents believe their ability to quit smoking depends entirely on will power.

The average smoker in the UAE lights 10 cigarettes a day, spends US$32 (Dh117) a month to feed a nicotine addiction, and is more than 50 per cent likely to try quitting three to four times, according to an international study of the region's smoking habits.

Coinciding with today's World No Tobacco Day, the latest SUPPORT study by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer assessed the attitudes and behaviours of 1,422 smokers in one of the largest surveys on smoking conducted across the Middle East and North Africa. The study, whose acronym stands for Smoking: Understanding People's Perceptions, Opinions and Reactions to Tobacco, found that smokers in the UAE were far more likely than those in the rest of the region to cite "enjoyment" as the primary reason for lighting up. While nearly two-thirds of the UAE respondents (64 per cent) said they liked smoking too much to stop, less than half of those surveyed in other countries (45 per cent) felt likewise. Habit was the top reason for smoking in the rest of the region.

Mahmoud Marashi, a professor of medicine at Dubai Medical College, said the findings illustrated "quite a unique problem" in the UAE. "The problem is when people say they actually enjoy smoking or it's a social thing, they think they won't be able to stop because of how much they enjoy it," he said after reading the report. "But if you started smoking and then became addicted, it's more likely you can quit."

Dr Marashi, who works at Rashid Hospital in Dubai, noted that many UAE residents took up nicotine early - between the ages of 11 and 14 - and were influenced by peers as well as by the local smoking culture. "The UAE is more cosmopolitan, and this is like a pastime," he said. "For friends and people sitting in cafes and shisha shops it's part of the social fabric." He was also dismayed that very few smokers in the country (17 per cent) consulted their physician for treatment. Of those who had serious discussions with their doctors, just 36 per cent said they were satisfied with the advice.

"Many people don't think the doctor has much to offer," Dr Marashi said. IMS Health, an international research company for the pharmaceutical industry, conducted the study through 30-minute interviews in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tunisia and the UAE. All respondents said they smoked at least one cigarette a day. Most of the 213 UAE respondents (90 per cent) believe their ability to quit depends entirely on willpower.

"This is a common perception: 'I can quit whenever I want'," remarked Dr Yasser el Dershaby, the medical director for Pfizer in the Gulf. "However, a related study shows that willpower is only a successful method for five per cent of people. That's why healthcare professionals are so important." Although 61 per cent of smokers in the Emirates want to butt out for good, Dr el Dershaby noted "they have the will, but they don't seem to know the ways - the how - to do it".

Lubna Rostom, 25, counted herself among the majority of UAE smokers who believe it is up to themselves to give up cigarettes. The Egyptian communications engineer spends roughly Dh100 a month on Marlboro Lights and burns through one pack of 20 cigarettes over two days. "I completely believe that if you want to quit, you quit," she said. "You do it yourself and once you decide it's over, it's over."

As with the majority of UAE respondents in the survey, Ms Rostom's main motivation for wanting to stop smoking was her health. She cited peer pressure as the main reason for continuing. "I think 100 per cent of my co-workers smoke. I told one of my friends one time I'd stop and she was like, 'Oh no, you're going to be too boring for us'." mkwong@thenational.ae