Health experts said that more pupils are trying the highly addictive tobacco dokha without the knowledge of parents and teachers.
The legal tobacco, which is popular across the Gulf, gives the smoker a fast hit that leaves them dizzy.
Dokha is the tobacco that is smoked in a small pipe called a medwakh. Most young people get around the 18 age limit in shops by buying it online.
Yaqoob Al Hammadi, academic and vocational adviser at Sheikh Sultan bin Saqer School in Sharjah, said all of the pupils he caught smoking medwakh admitted it was not their first time.
“I caught them years after they actually picked up the habit and their parents still did not know,” he said.
He said teenagers know how to hide their smoking, especially if they smoke medwakh, which does not leave an odour on the hands or clothes.
“I caught numerous pupils smoking dokha over the years and now we have pupils using vapes,” he said.
Dr Humaid Al Shamsi, president of the Emirates Oncology Society, said most of these pupils have seen their parents or other family members smoking medwakh and decided to try it.
“When I used to lecture them about smoking dokha, they spoke of how quick it was for them to get addicted to it after the first drag,” he said.
Mr Al Hammadi said parents should guide their children and be aware of what they are doing.
“They must always know where their children go, who they are friends with and what they bring home with them,” he said.
Research has shown that teenagers can become dependent on nicotine sooner than adults.
Dr Al Shamsi quoted a 2018 study by Sharjah University that looked at the number of young smokers in UAE schools. It found that 39 per cent have tried smoking different tobacco products and 36 per cent have tried medwakh.
“Of these, 25 per cent became regular medwakh smokers,” he said.
“While the number of smokers in countries like the US is dropping, it's increasing in our region.”
Stricter laws needed to control medwakh use
UAE laws ban smoking inside public places such as malls, university campuses, health and fitness centres, places of worship and in cars in the presence of children under the age of 12.
In an attempt to discourage and reduce the number of smokers, the country also introduced taxation on tobacco products in October 2017.
But experts believe more regulations are needed.
In 2008, the Sharjah government banned all kinds of smoking in public areas, including the smoking of shisha.
“We need more of such regulations,” Dr Al Shamsi said.
Schools should have lessons on the harmful effects of smoking to discourage children, he said.
Medwakh has 10 times more cancer-causing chemicals than cigarettes
Dr Al Shamsi said the widespread belief among smokers in the UAE that medwakh is safer is a myth.
Instead, it is a leading cause of several health problems, with cancer at the top of the list.
Dr Al Shamsi said the same Sharjah University study proves medwakh pipes have a high amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon — a chemical that causes lung, skin, bladder, liver and stomach cancers.
“It has 10 times more of that chemical than cigarettes,” he told The National.
“Many smokers wrongly believe that medwakh is safer and less harmful than cigarettes or shisha.”
It also has much higher nicotine and tar levels than cigarettes and can cause respiratory and heart problems, and nearly 15 types of cancer.
The same study measured levels of nicotine and tar in dokha compared with other tobacco products and found that dokha had significantly higher levels of both — making it extremely harmful.
Medwakh users more likely to be addicted to nicotine
Talal, 43, an Emirati employee at a public department, said he began smoking dokha in 2005 as an alternative to cigarettes.
“I heard it was less harmful so I thought to use it and gradually stop smoking,” he said.
Instead of quitting, Talal became more addicted over the years. Now, he sometimes smokes three tobacco products including cigarettes, medwakh, shisha and, most recently, e-cigarettes.
Talal said he knows medwakh is more harmful than other tobacco products but cannot stop.
“I can't give it up,” he said. “I need a one-time solution because I can't handle long-term smoking cessation programmes. I have many friends who tried these quitting programmes and returned to smoking months later.”