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Complete public smoking ban might be end game for the UAE

Complete public smoking ban might be end game for the UAE

The country is taking all the right steps to tackle the problem head on

Unlike the Western world, smoking levels are actually on the increase in the Middle East – but with progressive governmental policies in the UAE, that might be about to change
Smoking was once considered to be a glamourous pursuit (see Don Draper in Mad Men). Tobacco companies even claimed it was good for our health before the science proved otherwise; cigarettes are good for your voice, they keep you slim, unblock your nasal passages. These were just some of the ludicrous falsehoods spread through slick advertising (Don Draper again) back before it was banned.

But we have come a long way since those dark days in the first half of the 20th century. The number of smokers is now in steep decline almost universally across every corner of the globe. This reduction is, as you would expect, particularly pronounced in the developed world.

In the United States, for example, some 42 per cent of adults smoked back in 1965. By 2006, the figure had dropped to just over 20 per cent. And in 2012, it was said to be just 18 per cent. Meanwhile, in Australia the figure was at more than 22 per cent in 2001. Come 2013, it was just 16 per cent. And in the United Kingdom – once home of the louche smoker in the stylish swinging 60s – the number of smokers has fallen below 20 per cent for the first time in a century.

The trajectory is clear. Despite the addictive properties and fashion associated with cigarettes, people are turning their back on the cancer sticks in their droves – certainly in the western world. Official statistics show that 80 per cent of the one billion smokers across the globe reside in middle-to-low income countries. Clearly, education and pioneering public officials are key to driving down smoking levels.

Unbelievably, around 60 per cent of the world’s smokers come from just 10 countries. These nations predictably include China, Indonesia and Bangladesh – all places with challenges around education and political corruption. Unsurprisingly, the countries witnessing smoking numbers drop are the same countries which launched laws and regulations a decade or so ago, placing curbs and limitations on both who could smoke and where. The role of governments is key.

Take England, for example, which introduced a blanket ban on smoking in all enclosed workplaces back in 2007. In the years since, smoking rates dropped markedly from 27 per cent in the year of the ban down to 21 per cent by 2011 – and further still to 19 per cent by 2014.

Other nations too including Ireland, Canada, the US and Australia have all benefitted from a decline in smoker numbers as result of anti-smoking measures. As well as bans, policies have included compulsory health warnings on tobacco products and a clampdown on the freedom to advertise.

The picture in the UAE

But where does Dubai, and the United Arab Emirates more generally, sit within this global picture of tobacco use? In truth, it is a little higher up the smoking league table than is ideal. Smoking rates among men in the UAE are thought to be around 30 per cent with the number of female smokers much lower at around 3 per cent.

What is most worrying, though, is that – according to prominent academic Dr Wael Al Mahmeed – the number of smokers across the Middle East in on the increase.

What might be causing this increase? Some critics suggest that as the large tobacco manufacturers see their sales decline throughout the western world, they have made a conscious effort to invade the shores of the Middle East. What is more, the popularity of shisha in the region undoubtedly plays a part too.

But there is no doubt the UAE’s health officials have worked hard in recent years to try and turn this around in order to create a healthier population and reduce the pressures on the health system.

You only have to look at the laws that are now in place to curb smoking across the emirates. The UAE government has long been proactive when it comes to efforts to curb the number of smokers in the region, as well as protecting its residents from the dangers of second-hand smoke.

Back in 2014, the heavily publicised Anti-Tobacco Federal Law came into effect. It contained a series of measures aimed at protecting the younger generation from the perils of smoking such as the banning of smoking in cars in the presence of children under 12 years old, forbidding the sale of both tobacco and shisha products to any person under the age of 18 and restrictions on the sale of shisha and tobacco products within close proximity to schools, kindergartens, universities and mosques. Shisha cafes are now also required to be at least 150 metres from the nearest residential area.

As it stands, the law also requires all tobacco products to come with a large warning labels – highlighting the dangers of tobacco, while thankfully tobacco and shisha products cannot be displayed in the vicinity of health products, products aimed at children or food.

Finally, in perhaps the clearest indication yet that the UAE government means business, all tobacco advertising was banned back in 2014 – as was the growth and production of tobacco for commercial purposes.

Since then, reform has moved on at an even greater pace. The Ministry of Health announced a follow-up list of mandatory anti-smoking measures in January of the following year. This time, the vast majority concerned where smoking was permitted rather than how tobacco products could be marketed and sold.

Under the latest regulations, smoking is banned throughout all occupied buildings and enclosed spaces including offices, dormitories, lifts, toilets, staircases, balconies, cafeterias and company vehicles. Smoking rooms are no longer allowed and any designated smoking areas must be outside. Finally, all ashtrays must be removed from public spaces and ‘No smoking’ signs must be displayed prominently.

Even so, this seems to be only the beginning – rather than the end – of the progressive policymaking. Dr Al Honsani, director of public health for Health Authority Abu Dhabi, suggested in 2015 that further price hikes – the cost of a packet of cigarettes has already doubled in just a few years – could be on the horizon.

These sentiments were echoed during the ‘No Tobacco Day’ last year, when head of the Tobacco Control Programme at the Ministry of Health and Prevention Dr Wedad Al Maidour announced that he would be pushing for plain tobacco packaging – devoid of all colour and branding – in 2016. The message from UAE health officials is clear in its sentiment: ‘If you want to smoke, we’re going to make it difficult for you.’

Whatever the motives of the tobacco companies when it comes to the region, the UAE wishes to protect the health of its citizens. Not only those who choose to smoke, but also those who inhale smoke passively – particularly children.

Governments are right to be concerned about the dangers of passive smoking.

According to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 2.5 million non-smokers have died since 1964 due to health conditions caused by second-hand smoke. The CDC also predicts that, between the years of 2005 and 2009, second-hand smoke was the cause of 34,000 heart disease deaths and 7,300 lung cancer deaths, each year, among non-smokers in America.

Meanwhile, over in the UK, Cancer Research predicts that second-hand smoke is responsible for over 12,000 deaths from lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) every year. The charity estimates that around 165,000 children are affected by disease each year – including conditions such as asthma, respiratory infection, bacterial meningitis and even cot death – as a direct result of passive smoking.

For years, smoker’s rights advocates (yes, such people really exist) have maintained that second-hand smoke is relatively harmless. Or that simply imposing no-smoking sections in restaurants and the like is enough to protect non-smokers, including children. However, the cold fact is: second-hand smoke, even in small doses, is incredibly toxic. In fact, sidestream smoke (the stuff that burns directly from the end of the cigarette and is not inhaled) is around four times more toxic than mainstream smoke (that which is inhaled through the butt of the cigarette). Sidestream smoke also contains around three times as much carbon monoxide, 10 to 30 times more nitrosamines and between 15 and 300 times more ammonia.

So can the government of UAE be hopeful that its recent anti-smoking regulations will have a positive impact? The evidence certainly points that way.

If we look to the UK again as a shining best-practice example of anti-smoking legislation in action, we see that a number of serious smoking-related diseases are far less common since the smoking ban was introduced. The country’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported in 2008 that an astounding two billion fewer cigarettes were smoked and 400,000 people had quit smoking within just one year of the start of the ban. Meanwhile, the 2016 Cochrane study reported a 42 per cent reduction in heart attacks since the introduction the nationwide smoking ban in 2007 – directly referencing a reduction in passive smoking as a major reason for this.

While smoking rates may be slightly higher than the government or health department might like here in the UAE – and the authorities will certainly be concerned by the reported rise in smoking in recent years – the fact is, the country is taking all the right steps to tackle the problem head on.

Let’s not forget that the UAE is a relatively young country and therefore, in matters such as these, there may have previously been an element of ‘playing catch-up’ in terms of the legislation. However, caught up it has, and it now proudly boasts some of the strongest anti-smoking legislation in the world. From that, the UAE can take heart. Having seen the positive effects of such legislation across the world, it surely stands to reason that the emirates can expect similar results.

One thing that is for certain, however – with talk of a potential outright ban on smoking in public already being debated – if the current legislation does not do the trick, you can expect even tougher controls in the not-to-distant future.

So whether you have the willpower to avoid the allure of Don Draper’s cigs or that shisha pipe that seems all too appealing is down to you.

But what is clear is that governments will increasingly make it more difficult for you to damage yourself through smoking. And that is as it should be. A laissez-faire approach to public policy only works in certain cases. Tobacco consumption is definitvely not one of them, as the evidence proves.

Stephen MacLaren is head of regional sales employee benefits at Al Futtaim Willis

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