In the UAE smoking is a common habit among men, women and even the youth. As rest of the world wakes up to its health risks, isn’t it time the region followed?
Smoking kills. This is not news. It’s been plastered all over the media and written boldly on cigarette boxes for decades, yet we still have a lust for it, especially here in the Middle East. Why then is it so hard to kick this habit, and are cigarette alternatives really healthier?
Back in 1980, an urgent conference was held in London to discuss the topic of “Smoking and Health in the Middle East”. The British American Tobacco (BAT) company sent all of its partners from the Arab World to this conference. Their agenda was focused on the Middle East government’s efforts to reduce smoking in the region and raise awareness of its harms. BAT was concerned that business would be threatened by public health concerns.
This meeting proved two things: that tobacco posed real health concerns, which the Middle East governments were determined to address, and also that it was backed by big, powerful business. When cigarette advertising was banned, the industry took a bit hit, but somehow, it still thrives due to the human addiction to tobacco. The scary part is that this affinity to the tobacco industry still exists both by end users and big business, even though its harmful consequences are widely known. Despite being out of the spotlight, it remains one of the most lucrative business ventures to get into. Cigarette companies portray themselves as good corporate partners and have innovated some ‘low risk’ smoking alternatives such as e-cigarettes and other variations of conventional cigarettes.
HARD TO LET GO
It has been 60 years since the connection between tobacco and cancer was medically confirmed. So why are we still hooked? Last year BAT reported that its annual profits slipped by 0.98 percent in Western Europe, but rose by 9.1 percent in the EEMEA region (Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa). The Middle East contributed 28% of the company’s total revenue, more than any other region. According to the World Health Organization, almost 6 million people die every year from consumption of tobacco products.
With the cheapest brands in the UAE costing as little as 3 Dirhams per pack, this is one of the reasons why tobacco is popular and easily accessible. Medical experts have called for the price to be raised to deter smokers.
E-CIGARETTES AND SHISHA
In response to the growing health concerns surrounding tobacco, cigarette companies have introduced e-Cigarettes as a supposedly safer innovation. It has caught on in some countries, but scientists are divided on how healthy they are as an alternative to tobacco. Some even fear that they may be an in-road to smoking among the youth. The UAE has banned the sale of e-Cigarettes in the country as a precaution.
But there is one unshakeable phenomenon in the Middle East – shisha. Many young people here are under the mistaken belief that shisha is safer than smoking cigarettes because the tobacco is flavored and passes through water. The truth is that it still contains all the regular carcinogens and nicotine that are found in normal cigarettes. Medical experts say that both e-cigarettes and shisha are ways to glamorize and normalize the unhealthy habit of smoking. The World Health Organization states that one
hour of smoking shisha is equivalent tosmoking 100 to 200 cigarettes in terms
of the volume of smoke inhaled. BODY?
Tobacco companies will attest to the fact that consumption is increasing in emerging markets such as the Middle East, Asia and Africa due to population growth, economic expansion and fewer regulations such as taxes, while it is decreasing in mature markets where there are much tighter regulations. The Middle East and UAE in particular could definitely benefit from such regulations along with increased public awareness.
But the problem lies mainly in the hands of the huge tobacco business, which is not ready to give up production. Insurmountable profits gained by the tobacco industry sadly overpower the pressing concerns from the health sector, and since there is big money involved, it’s a dirty battle, far from being won.