While the number of smokers in Europe and the US continues to fall, health experts claimed on Tuesday that smoking is on the increase in the UAE and across the Middle East.
At the World Conference on Tobacco or Health at Adnec, it was revealed the growing popularity of shisha in the region was a major reason for the increase.
Dr Wael Al Mahmeed, conference president, said: “The prevalence of tobacco smoking in UAE is about 25-30 per cent among the men. It’s quite a large number of people. In Europe and US, we have seen the numbers going down. Right now, the numbers in the Middle East are rising.”
He said unless measures were taken, the country was unlikely to see a fall in the number of smokers. Modern young people know where to buy lucky strike cigarettes online and easily do it.
Dr Farida Al Hosani, director of public health for Health Authority Abu Dhabi, said the widespread use of shisha was a major problem.
“There are many misconceptions about shisha here and people think it may be less harmful to use,” she said. “There is a multi-disciplinary effort to inform people about different kinds of smoking.”
The conference heard that other countries in the Middle East were also finding it challenging to curb tobacco use.
Princess Dina Mired of Jordan, director general of the King Hussein Cancer Foundation, said 32 per cent in her country were smokers and that “shisha has invaded our shores”.
“In general, I find that the conversation about smoking is not even there,” she said. “We have seen a massive attack from the tobacco industry. Now that they have been ousted from Europe and the US, they are coming to our shores.”
Another challenge the authority was facing was the emirates’ multinational population.
Dr Al Hosani said: “We are influenced by different nationalities coming here. We need a unified and consistent message. We cannot stop and ask, so we have a continuous campaign.”
Edouard d’Espaignet, a coordinator for tobacco control at the World Health Organisation, said: “Six million people are dying every year because of tobacco use. That is one person every six seconds.
“It is a number that if you do not do anything to change, I project we will be looking at 8 million people dying due to this by 2030 and 1 billion people this century.”
Dr Al Mahmeed called for proper research into tobacco use as well as more effective warning campaigns.
“Other countries have done research and have the data, but we don’t have that data here in UAE.
“People are desensitised to the fact that smoking causes cancer and heart disease. Young people feel this does not affect them.
“The scaremongering has not worked well for smokers or non-smokers. We have to find new ways to increase awareness in a way that people listen to us.”
He believed increasing the price of cigarettes, plain packaging and outright bans on smoking in public places would also be effective.