Change in smoking law brings applause, and shrugs

Shisha smokers and hoteliers accept prohibition with a sigh, while many residents applaud the new regulations.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - Jan 06 - 2010 : A seller show a Malboro Cigarette pack in a shop. ( Jaime Puebla / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JP Smoking 04c.jpg
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Initial reactions to the nationwide public smoking ban imposed last night were generally favourable, with many residents applauding the law and hoteliers shrugging it off as inconsequential to business. Even some regular shisha smokers said they were not opposed to a general ban - although they hoped to continue the practice some place.

Ehab al Sebaey, 40, an Egyptian karate trainer at the Abu Dhabi Police College, said he understood the health risks of smoking. "Definitely, shisha in residential areas should be banned," he said. "Smoke goes up to the apartments and causes problems. At the Corniche it's probably better because it's open." He said it would affect his shisha-smoking frequency. "If the place is far you get lazy, whereas here it's within your grasp," he said.

Michelle Ziolkowski, who has lived in Fujairah since 2002, said the ban was good for the country. "People smoke so much up here," she said. "The worst thing I saw was a pharmacist smoking behind the desk in the chemist shop, which I've seen on a number of occasions. It threw me, as I've never seen anything like that before." The prohibition against smoking on public transport and in enclosed public spaces, including cafes and restaurants, was issued last night by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE. Tobacco companies must meet specific requirements when importing into the UAE, including the placement of clear warnings on cigarette boxes. Advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products will also be banned. The courts will be able to seize property of companies breaching the law, and can shut down violators. Offenders also face penalties of up to Dh1 million (US$270,000) in fines and jail terms of two years.

Licences will be refused or revoked for cafes or food outlets not adhering to the ban, the first comprehensive smoking prohibition in the GCC. In the hospitality industry, already geared towards providing patrons with a diverse range of preferences, the ban was viewed as mostly harmless to business. Many hotels already have non-smoking floors, and some are completely smoke-free. The new law stipulates that indoor venues must apply for special permits to have designated smoking areas.

Jean-Francois Laurent, the general manager of the Yas Hotel, said the establishment had not yet received any official guidance and would apply for a license if necessary. "Most of the hotel is non-smoking - the lobby, restaurants and all the rooms," he said. "Smoking is only allowed in the bars and outdoor terrace. It's very much the trend at the moment. There are fewer and fewer smokers, and it's in the interest of the comfort of our guests. It's uncomfortable to have to sit near smokers, particularly cigars and pipes. We haven't had any complaints about our policy."

Sharjah, meanwhile, is not likely to see many changes, hoteliers said. "We've had this legislation for over one year now, so for us this is no different," said Esmat Tahoun, the manager at Sharjah's Rotana hotel. "We have lost customers who used to come to the lobby to smoke and drink coffee, but the law doesn't stop people smoking. It only stops them smoking in public places. Of 18 floors, we have only three for non-smoking, as in private, people still want to smoke."

At the Millennium Hotel, however, the situation is different. "Most of our guests want the non-smoking rooms," said Ali Bulos, the front-desk manager. "People are following the rules, which are across Sharjah. I don't think this legislation will cause us any change or any problems." In November, Dr Wael al Mahmeed, head of the Emirates Cardiac Society, called for further measures, including taxation on tobacco products, which yesterday's legislation did not cover.

Multiple studies in the US and Europe show that a ban on smoking in public places reduces the incidence of smoking and smoking-related diseases, Dr al Mahmeed said. He also called for an increase in the price of cigarettes, which in the UAE and across the region is up to six times cheaper than in the UK and US, where governments have tried to deter smokers by making the habit less affordable. Last year, the World Health Organisation reported that more than 25 per cent of men in the UAE smoked compared with only 2.6 per cent of women. The organisation predicts that deaths from cancer will triple in the region over the next 10 years.

Many countries have proved that bans can deter smoking. In Scotland, within one year of establishing its smoking ban in 2005, nearly 50,000 people had attempted to quit, while in England, the UK Department of Health said nearly 235,000 had stopped smoking. The US has led the way in banning smoking, dating to 1990, when San Luis Obispo in California became the first city in the world to ban indoor smoking at all public places, including bars and restaurants.

Clinics to help people stop smoking have also been established, and several municipalities, including Dubai, have been enforcing their own bans. The Cabinet has called for a national anti-tobacco committee to oversee the enforcement of the new legislation, said the Health Minister, Dr Hanif Hassan. Quoted by the state news agency, WAM, Dr Hassan said the ban would help "combat diseases and harmful habits in the society" and that he hoped it would deter youths from being "seduced" by tobacco companies and lower the number of established shisha and cigarette smokers.

Not everyone, however, was confident the new legislation would have the desired effect. Rami Haider, 23, a Lebanese hairdresser in Dubai's Marina Mall, was pessimistic about breaking his nicotine habit. The ban is "not good, but it really doesn't matter, because I'm addicted to smoking anyway," Mr Haider said as he took a smoking break on the steps near the marina promenade. "I don't like smoking, and I want to stop, but that doesn't mean I can stop. The ban won't affect me." * With additional reporting by Zoi Constantine, Loveday Morris, Hugh Naylor and Kareem Shaheen