Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- May 31 saw the world celebrate World No Tobacco Day, the theme of which this year is ‘Tobacco: Deadly in any form or disguise’. Meanwhile, many countries have proven their ability to limit their import and consumption of tobacco. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently honored a number of European countries that successfully reduced the number of smokers amongst their citizens by raising the prices of cigarettes, and banning smoking in most public spaces. In addition, these countries designated parts of their police forces to track down those who violate public smoking restrictions.
In one of the international reports on the matter, it was apparent that Saudi Arabia is the world’s fourth biggest importer of tobacco. Last year, the volume of imports exceeded 1.5 billion Saudi Riyals (SR) let alone the stored products from the previous year. Due to the fact that the kingdom is the 65th member to sign the WHO’s agreement against tobacco, it is obliged to design strategies to reduce the demand for tobacco such as increasing taxes on cigarettes, placing restrictions on tobacco advertisements, launching educational campaigns against smoking, helping smokers to give up, combating illegal sales, and fighting the selling of tobacco to underage consumers.
Meanwhile, hand in hand with World No Tobacco Day, the officials responsible for combating smoking in the kingdom are looking forward to the completion of a study conducted by the health committee of the Saudi Shura Council on the activation of the scheme to combat smoking. Despite three years since the issuance of the scheme by the council of ministers, its manifest is yet to be issued.
The study by the health committee of the Shura Council came as a response to the crisis of the increase in the import and consumption of tobacco in the Saudi Arabia. The study also partly resulted from the request made by one of the anti-smoking officials from the Ministry of Health in Asharq Al Awsat to increase the custom tax on tobacco as much as possible. The official further called for imposing new taxes whether for granting tobacco franchises or for licensing selling outlets, all to limit the dangers of smoking, to decrease tobacco consumption and imports, and to improve the health, social and economic environments in Saudi Arabia.
A number of government officials told Asharq Al Awsat that the rates of tobacco imports have increased over the past few years, which reflected an increase in the number of smokers especially as many women, including university graduates, have taken up the habit. Meanwhile, many anti-smoking clinics for women are operating across the kingdom to help female clients to give up. Specialists have also highlighted that the rise in tobacco imports is due to teenagers and underage smokers who take up the habit due to the absence of effective measures to prevent selling them tobacco products.
Sulayman Ibn Abdul Rahman Al Sabi, the secretary general of the charitable organization to combat smoking in Riyadh told Asharq Al Awsat that the reason for the increase of smokers in Saudi Arabia is due to the rise of those who pick up the habit as teenagers or as children. Concerning the anti-smoking programs in the kingdom, Al Sabi said that these programs require more effectiveness and stronger efforts. He noted that the statistics of the Saudi customs authority indicated an increase in tobacco consumption on an annual basis. He also said that the authorities and associations that exert much effort to combat smoking do not have the effective mechanisms to stop the foreign tobacco companies. According to Al Sabi, the budgets of these associations and authorities could barely cover the costs of anti-smoking programs for smokers, and exhibitions and booklets for raising awareness about the dangers of smoking. Moreover, he indicated the absence of advanced programs and larger plans to confront the tobacco companies. He called for the activation of the scheme to combat smoking, which was set up by the ministers’ council but has remained largely ineffective. He added that the Ministry of Education and the Presidency for Youth and Welfare are yet to fulfill their roles in the battle against smoking.
From the health perspective, Dr Fahd Ibn Mohamed Al Khoudayri, the president of the Cancer Research Unit in King Faisal Specialized Hospital, revealed that lung cancer is the most common form of cancer amongst Saudi men. He said that there are 12,000 cases of lung cancer annually. Meanwhile, the WHO’s website stated that tobacco was the second biggest cause of death worldwide as it kills one out of ten adults, approximately 5 million deaths per year. The site added that if the present rate of smoking continues, the figure would rise to 10 million deaths per year by 2020.
The WHO website also stated that the goal behind World No Tobacco Day is to encourage the governments of the world to work according to a strict set of measures to combat smoking and the spread of tobacco products. The governments should work to highlight the facts surrounding the use of various forms of tobacco consumption (cigarettes, waterpipe, etc). The website also noted that poverty and smoking are linked as studies have shown that the poorer families in developing countries still spend 10% of their family income on smoking at the expense of basic items such as food, medicine, clothing, education, healthcare etc, in addition to the direct health impacts. The website also stated that tobacco causes Anemia, increases in healthcare costs, and early death. In addition, according to the website, smoking contributes to higher illiteracy rates.
The site questioned the role of smoking in causing poverty that has been widely neglected by many researchers. It mentioned that the most inexpensive strategies to combat smoking is to legislate prohibitions on direct and indirect tobacco advertisements, raising the price of tobacco, increasing taxes, and applying laws on smoking in public spaces, in addition to the distributing of information and images concerning the risks of smoking.