How Saudi Arabia cut smoking rates with $7 cigarette packs

High taxation has helped slash cigarette use by more than a third in the Kingdom

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Smoking rates are falling worldwide but more young people are taking up the habit despite high regional taxes, according to the latest global report on tobacco trends.

Data from the World Tobacco Atlas showed the number of people smoking has declined by more than a third in Saudi Arabia, and almost a quarter in Qatar.

In the UAE, two years after a 100 per cent excise tax on cigarettes was introduced in 2017, Abu Dhabi’s consumption rates fell significantly, with tobacco trade reducing from Dh410 million to Dh62.4 million.

The latest figures for Saudi Arabia show 37 per cent fewer people were smoking in 2020, compared to 2014 when the last survey was completed.

While heavy taxation in the country drafted in in 2017 pushed some towards vaping, others relied on cheaper, imported cigarettes.

“It's been a tough time for smokers considering more than 10 million people smoke in the country," says Nael Ali, a customer at a store in Jeddah.

"During the Covid-19 lockdown I was in panic mode, and no stores had stock of cigarettes.

“I drove outside the city to look for alternatives but it wasn't possible, so I switched to vape because it's cheaper.”

Saudi Arabia taxed smokers out of the habit with $7 packs

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Saudi Arabia aims to slash tobacco consumption to just 5 per cent by 2030, while authorities banned smoking in public places such as airports, restaurants, educational institutes and public transport.

A new policy introduced in 2017 increased the price of a 20-cigarette pack of the most popular brand to 27.50 Saudi Riyals ($7.33) with the tax portion being 68.09 per cent, within the benchmark recommended by the World Bank to help curb smoking.

Annual importation of cigarettes declined by 27.41 per cent from 2013 to 2019 after the imposition of value-based and value-added taxes in 2017 and 2018, respectively, while the price of a pack of cigarettes increased by 115.1 per cent from 2016 to 2018.

"During the lockdown was when things really went out of hand,” said Khalil Ahmed, a store manager in Jeddah.

“I had people calling me to reserve a large number of boxes for them and coming to the shop everyday in hopes of getting access to cigarettes and storing them for the future as we didn't know how long it would take.

”Since the prices went up we have tried many ways to get access to packs from outside for instance but you end up paying at customs so it's the same thing.”

Priced out of lighting up

Another shop owner in Jeddah, Bashir Khan from Pakistan, said customers were buying less often due to higher prices.

"Generally people cannot afford to buy packs of cigarettes like before,” he said.

“Now my regular customers buy less packs and less frequently. The whole market is like this.”

Worldwide, the number of smokers has fallen from 22.7 per cent of the population in 2007 to 19.6 per cent in 2019, around 1.13 billion people.

Tobacco use surges among teens

However, in 63 of 135 nations surveyed, tobacco use increased in children aged 13-15, with more than 50 million adolescents smoking cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products.

In several of these countries, including Haiti and Mauritania, tobacco use among adolescent girls is now more common than among adult women.

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Since 2009, the number of smokers has increased over a decade in four Middle East nations.

The percentage of Egypt's population that smokes had increased from 37 per cent to 42 per cent, in Jordan it went up from 46 per cent to 51 per cent, in Iraq it went up from 26 per cent to 32 per cent, and in Oman numbers almost doubled from 7 per cent to 13 per cent.

Meanwhile, a 2019 UAE National Health Survey showed the number of adult smokers had fallen 18 per cent since 2010.

According to the survey, the prevalence of tobacco use among both sexes accounted for 9.1 per cent of the population — 15.7 per cent and 2.4 per cent for men and women, respectively.

Public awareness remains key

Dr Sheena Tan Go, a general practitioner at NMC Golden Sands Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the latest tobacco atlas was a reminder that more public education was required.

“We are finally reaping the benefit with the fall of smoking prevalence globally, but our mission is not yet over,” she said.

“There are still a lot of things to be done to lower the morbidity and mortality rates from cigarette smoking.

“We have to continue to work together to reach out and get the message across to where cases are increasing, such as in adolescents, under-developed and developing countries.

“Regardless of the time it takes to turn-around, every small step towards reducing the prevalence of smoking can impact individuals, families, and communities and can contribute to a better quality of life in the long-run.”

Updated: May 30, 2022, 10:38 AM