Doctors have urged the government to look at bringing in 'minimum pricing' for tobacco to lift the prices of the cheapest cigarettes on the shelves.
The move would put an end to low quality brands being sold for as little as Dh3.
Tobacco producers claim early market research suggests smokers are turning to cheaper cigarettes and even illicit smokes since a 100 per cent tax on tobacco products came into force in October.
Although the prices of most cigarette packages are now much higher, very cheap brands continue to linger on the shelves and appeal to low income smokers and young people.
A report by global public-health think-tank Vital Strategies and the American Cancer Society last week revealed that smoking killed more than 2,900 people in the UAE in 2016 and cost the country $569 million in lost productivity and health care costs.
Doctors working in smoking cessation clinics have said increasing the price of the cheapest brands could help more think about kicking the habit for good.
“We’ve seen people be encouraged to stop smoking since the tax came in last year, and a lot of people have used it as an opportunity to quit,” said Dr Zaid Zoumot, consultant pulmonologist at the respiratory critical care institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“It is getting people to think about their habit and the health implications, and price is a good way to push them towards stopping.
“We have not seen enough data since the taxation was introduced, but we know price is effective.
“There is somewhere between a 2.5 to 5 per cent reduction in smoking use with a 10 per cent increase in price.”
A new national tobacco strategy is being considered by NHS Scotland, where smoking causes 10,000 deaths a year.
In a country with high taxation like Scotland, as part of the UK, the number of smokers has reduced from 28 per cent in 2003 to 21 per cent today, but adult smoking levels have stagnated since 2013.
Poorer communities in Scotland are more than three times more likely to smoke than those who are well off.
“Minimum pricing has been shown to have an even bigger impact than high taxation elsewhere, particularly in younger people and those on a low income,” said Dr Zoumot.
“It has to be done carefully, as we have seen in the Far East that minimum pricing can also boost the illicit cigarette trade.”
While some are concerned minimum pricing could encourage more smokers to buy tobacco illegally, it could also encourage more to quit.
Scotland will introduce minimum pricing for alcohol on May 1 of at least 50p (Dh2.5) a unit.
Academics are keen to assess the outcome on binge drinking, and if it could have a similar impact on smoking habits.
In Australia, high tobacco taxes have pushed up prices and reduced consumption, but cigarette firms hit back by promoting discounted brands at the low end of the market.
Speaking at a tobacco control conference in Australia in 2017, Professor Kurt Ribisi, from the school of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina said governments should impose a floor price or minimum price to control the sales tactic.
He suggested a minimum price of AU$20 (Dh58) for a packet of 20 cigarettes would help further reduce smoking rates in Australia.
In France, neutral branding for cigarettes has proved ineffective, adding further weight to the argument that a different approach is required to encourage smokers to quit.
After more than a year with a branding ban on tobacco products, new numbers published by the French Observatory for Drugs and Addiction reveal that cigarette sales have been cut by less than 0.7 per cent.
Luca Bertoletti, European Affairs Manager for the Consumer Choice Center (CCC), said this represents a failure on the part of the French government and should prompt them to turn course.
"After more than a year of plain packaging for tobacco products in France, the policy has failed to significantly reduce smoking rates," she said.
"Removing brands from the packs doesn’t change the behaviour of the consumers, but instead promotes sales on the black market.
“That is troubling for public health advocates and consumers alike.”
A concern is that minimum pricing could push more people towards medwakh in the UAE, with doctors calling for tighter regulations and more health campaigns against its dangers.
“Medwakh offers one very strong hit and the smoker will hold it for a few seconds,” Dr Zoumot said.
“This is the equivalent of smoking four or five cigarettes, and some of these young guys will smoke 20-30 times a day – that’s the equivalent of five packets of cigarettes a day.
“This is more likely to damage lung tissues and we are seeing bad cases of emphysema in young people, maybe aged 20-30, similar to what we would expect to see in crack cocaine smokers in the west.
“We would normally expect to see this condition in smokers of 40-50 years, but we are seeing this in much younger people now.”