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What can other Arab countries learn from Saudi Arabia’s fight against tobacco use?

Dubai: Tobacco use remains a serious health concern in countries in the Middle East and North Africa, which have the highest proportion of smokers in the world.

Despite this high prevalence of tobacco use in the region, policies initiated by the Saudi authorities have resulted in a significant reduction in the number of smokers in the country, as well as an increase in those seeking help to quit the habit.

The public-health consequences of what the World Health Organization calls the “tobacco epidemic” are dire. Tobacco smoke contains more than 2,500 carcinogenic chemicals and, according to WHO statistics, smoking eventually kills up to 50 percent of people who engage in the habit.

Tobacco Atlas, a project that collects data on the problems posed by this global pandemic and how to deal with them, estimates that in 2019 alone, more than 8.67 million people died of smoking-related diseases, including 1.3 million. those who were exposed. Secondhand smoking, also known as passive smoking.

In Saudi Arabia alone, it is estimated that smoking kills 70,000 people every year.

Smoking is responsible for 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths and increases the risk of heart, lung, neurological, eye, digestive and infectious diseases, among other cancers.

The often hidden economic toll of smoking, including bills for medical care for smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke, costs billions of dollars each year.

According to the Tobacco Atlas, the worldwide economic damage caused by smoking in 2019 was approximately $2 trillion, which is equivalent to about 1.8 percent of global GDP.

A study published in the academic journal Tobacco Control in 2021 estimates that the total cost of smoking for six Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – was more than $14.3 billion in 2016 alone. About 75 percent of the government health expenditure is spent.

The eastern Mediterranean region has experienced a 15 percent drop in the proportion of the population over the age of 15 who smoke daily since 1990. However, the number of smokers in the region has doubled since 2007 due to the rapid population growth of the Middle East. , (File/AFP)

Of those six countries, the economic cost of smoking was highest for Saudi Arabia, the most populous GCC country, where it amounted to more than $6.3 billion.

According to the Tobacco Atlas, the global prevalence of smoking fell from 22.7 percent in 2007 to 19.6 percent in 2019, for which WHO data is available.

The eastern Mediterranean region has experienced a 15 percent drop in the proportion of the population over the age of 15 who smoke daily since 1990. However, the number of smokers in the region has doubled since 2007 due to the rapid population growth of the Middle East. ,

The growing number of young smokers poses more challenges. While the use of electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products – known as “vaping” – is often marketed as less harmful alternatives to cigarettes to smokers and non-smokers alike, it has its own There are risks, especially for teenagers and young adults.

Dr. Sheikh Abdullah, a pediatrician and adolescent specialist at King Abdulaziz Medical City in Riyadh, told Arab News in September 2019 that “the move to e-cigarettes as a way to reduce the transition from traditional cigarettes to non-smokers” The temptation to switch may be tempted. Absolutely. But smoking e-cigarettes is also not advisable.”

He cautioned that young people who vape are at risk of stunted brain development and developing memory problems.


* 2.5K carcinogenic chemicals in tobacco smoke.

* 8.67m deaths from smoking-related diseases (2019).

* Economic cost of smoking $6.3bn for Saudi Arabia (2016).

* Economic cost of smoking $14.3bn for the GCC block (2016).

The Saudi Ministry of Health is working to address the challenges posed by the rise in popularity of vaping. It has posted messages and images on Twitter and other social media platforms warning of the dangers of e-cigarettes, including the slogan: “Taste inside, color outside, but the truth is an electronic heart attack.”

Since the early 2000s, Saudi authorities have adopted a number of policies designed to combat tobacco use. In 2003, he launched the country’s first public anti-smoking campaign.

In 2015, he banned smoking in many public places, including educational and cultural organizations and almost all workplaces. The current target is to reduce the proportion of the population who smoke daily from 11 percent to five percent by 2030.

However, Riyadh officials are not resting on their honours, and plan to implement additional initiatives to further reduce the harm caused by tobacco use.

Saudi smokers (above) have been warned that their habit is dangerous, with around 70,000 people dying each year in the Kingdom from its effects. (AFP)

In an interview with Saudi TV channel Al-Ekhbariya in June this year, the Secretary General of the Saudi Anti-Tobacco Committee, Dr Mansoor Al-Qahtani, said that the government intends to ban the sale of tobacco products in supermarkets. Earlier in 2016, their sale in kiosks was banned.

Thereafter, cigarettes will be available for purchase only in specialist shops selling tobacco products such as shisha and chewing tobacco.

Heavy taxation on tobacco products has proven to be a particularly effective tool to combat smoking and is a tool on which the state is heavily dependent. While the Middle East lags behind other regions in heavily taxing tobacco as a deterrent, many GCC countries have bucked the trend.

A 2021 WHO study comparing anti-smoking policies around the world found that in June 2017, Saudi Arabia introduced the highest duty on cigarettes in the GCC region: an excise duty of 100 percent.

Research has shown that Saudi policies have been successful in reducing smoking. A study published in the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal found that the Kingdom’s smoking population and the number of cigarettes smoked decreased significantly after the 2017 tax hike.

A 2022 analysis published by the Annals of Saudi Medicine also showed that annual imports of cigarettes fell by more than 27 percent from 2013 to 2019 after the tax was implemented.

What the World Health Organization calls the “tobacco epidemic” has serious public-health consequences, including in countries in the Middle East and North Africa. (AFP)

According to the WHO, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also imposed advertising bans and restrictions on smoking in public, and have implemented comprehensive programs to help and support those who quit smoking.

In 2011, the Kingdom was only the second country in the Arab world to establish national anti-smoking programs and clinics, after Bahrain, which introduced them in 2004.

As of 2019, there were 542 such clinics operating in Saudi Arabia. About 27 percent of people in the Kingdom who participated in programs designed to help them stop smoking managed to quit, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Health Informatics in developing countries, according to official figures.

Saudi Arabia leads the Arab world in the use of the media to raise awareness of the harms of tobacco use and the warnings printed on cigarette packaging.

Saudi Arabia was the first country in the eastern Mediterranean to mandate the use of plain, non-visually attractive packaging on tobacco products, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Tobacco Control.

The significant reduction in smoking in Saudi Arabia, following strict measures introduced to raise consumption costs and reduce demand, is surprising and follows data-driven policy recommendations.

A 2018 study of public-health policies designed to reduce smoking, published by the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, found that a tax rate of at least 50 percent is the most effective tool over the long term.

However, the Saudi government is not content to have anything to do with the consequences of its current policies. In an interview with the Yahla program this year, Al-Qahtani said: “According to studies, the most successful way to combat smoking is not voluntary or treatment (for those wanting to quit) but legislation and (government) policies, and Most important. Among them, the price is going up. We are still trying to increase the price.”

According to the latest international studies, he said, a 150 per cent tax would be more effective. If this policy is implemented, the price of a pack of cigarettes in Saudi Arabia would rise to around $10.50, the highest average price for a pack in the Arab world.