Crackdown on illicit tobacco will help stamp out crime

Tobacco smuggling undermines public health and funds nefarious activities

Cigarettes that do not have a sophisticated digital seal will be banned from import from May 1. Stephen Lock / The National
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The decision to ban the import of cigarettes that lack a sophisticated new digital seal is a welcome step forward in the battle against a habit that is as bad for national institutions as it is for individual health. Last year the government imposed a 100 per cent tax on tobacco products. Worryingly, half of the UAE's estimated 900,000 smokers reacted by turning to illegal cigarettes, a decision with grave consequences both for their own welfare and with a detrimental knock-on effect.

Contrary to what many smokers believe, governments do not impose heavy taxes on tobacco products simply to generate income at their expense. Taxing tobacco acts as a disincentive to smoke. Every year, about 3,000 people are killed by smoking in the UAE. Smoking also kills non-smokers, including smokers’ family members. Of the 7.21 million global deaths caused by smoking in 2016, nearly one in seven was attributed to secondhand smoke. While it is widely recognised that simply banning smoking outright would be an unpopular measure and almost impossible to enforce, governments have a responsibility to do something. Raising prices is a mechanism that has been repeatedly shown to reduce smoking and save lives, to say nothing of health insurance costs.

Deciding to bypass government taxation in order to continue feeding their habit on the cheap, smokers are gambling further with their own health by smoking unregulated cigarettes of uncertain origin. Some smuggled cigarettes are so-called 'illicit whites", legally manufactured but imported without taxation, but others are counterfeit versions of real brands, whose precise contents are unknown and unregulated.

Worse, in seeking to avoid paying higher costs, they are choosing instead to hand over their money to dubious criminal and terrorist enterprises. ISIS is among the organisations known to have benefited from the smuggling of cigarettes around the region and has used the profits to fund its terrorist activities.

Smokers should be aware when they light up of the repercussions of making a fateful choice to save a few dirhams. An antisocial habit could be fuelling much more nefarious activity so it is only right that the smuggling of tobacco products should be treated as a crime.