What should be read into the much higher rate of smoking among expatriate schoolchildren in Abu Dhabi compared to their peers elsewhere in the world? The survey by NYU Abu Dhabi researchers was based on just over 400 Year 9 pupils attending five private schools but despite the small and selective sampling, it ought still to be broadly representative of UAE society as a whole.
The statistic that 62 per cent of students had tried tobacco products is being taken seriously, not simply due to the health problems associated with the habit but also because of research identifying a correlation between smoking and other harmful behaviour, such as abuse of alcohol and drugs.
By comparison, 33 per cent of teenagers of similar age admitted trying cigarettes when polled in 2001 through the Global Youth Tobacco Survey. That World Health Organisation-initiated survey involved 43 countries but indications are that while the smoking rate among adults is falling, it is rising among teenagers.
However one suspects the high smoking rate reflects the different environment here. One factor is the prevalence of shisha, where despite laws to keep shisha cafes away from residential areas and to ban children from being present, half of the students said they had no difficulty smoking shisha.
Other factors include the low price, social attitudes and the rate of enforcement of laws designed to prevent teenagers buying cigarettes. Cigarettes here cost much less than in many western and some Asiancountries, where prices of up to Dh60 per packet are specifically intended to discourage youths from taking up the habit. Similarly, smoking is allowed in more places here, compared to the movement overseas to ban it in all public places. Smoking also does not attract the social opprobrium that it does in some other places. Finally, cigarettes are reasonably easy to buy despite age bans.
These statistics should give pause for thought. While this is a small pool of data, there is some cause for concern. The alarm bells are ringing and they should not be ignored.