A study has shown that children as young as nine have tried smoking. Pawan Singh / The National
A study has shown that children as young as nine have tried smoking. Pawan Singh / The National

Children in UAE as young as nine smoking: study

A study has shown that children in the UAE are inhaling their first hit of tobacco aged nine or younger, prompting calls for households to become smoke-free to stop children from developing an addiction to nicotine.

A UAE University study presented at a panel, at the International Society of Addiction Medicine conference in Abu Dhabi on Friday, found that 8.5 per cent of 12 to 14 year olds are smokers.

“We should focus on tobacco use at a young age,” said Dr Syed Shah, an associate professor at the university’s Institute of Public Health. “Otherwise it will be too late.”

His study looked at 1,186 Arab pupils between the ages of 12 and 18 and of which 51.4 per cent were Emirati. More than a fifth of boys smoked shisha and 21.9 per cent smoked cigarettes.

A study of female students at Zayed University by the university found similar results in underage smokers. In the anonymous survey, a significant number of the 552 respondents tried their first cigarette or shisha at age nine or younger.

“There is a high prevalence now for shisha smoking and I think the most alarming aspect of this is the early onset,” said Dr Heba Barazi, an assistant professor at Zayed University’s College of Natural and Health Sciences. “This early onset, this staggering number is actually consistent with a WHO original survey that was done between 13 to 15 years ago.”

In other words, little has changed. “In ten years they knew this and nothing has been done about that,” she said.


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The study reported that 5.6 per cent of female pupils smoked cigarettes and 8.8 per cent smoked shisha regularly. The number is far larger than indicated by previous studies of Emirati women, which placed the number of female smokers at about 0.8 per cent.

The study, done in the Spring semester of 2015, was anonymous and self-administered. Smoking has a strong social stigma for women.

“There was a clear gap in data” said Dr Barazi. “It’s very challenging to get good data on females. Smoking is not a sensitive issue for males but it is sensitive issue for females. I know women, I’m with them and I know they smoke.”

Yet women who smoke midwakh or shisha often do not recognise themselves as smokers.

“It’s still frowned upon and people perceive that they are not smokers if they smoke once a month,” said Dr Omar El Shahawy, a researcher from New York University. “Women were talking about how smoking is just a way to connect to the husband, they just sit and smoke hookah on the weekend. So for her, she’s not a smoker and it’s not a big deal.”

Academics called on regional intervention to stop mothers from smoking during pregnancy and to keep them away from second hand smoke.

Dr El Shahawy presented a study of 200 pregnant women in the Cairo area, which found that just three per cent of smokers quit smoking entirely during pregnancy.

It reported that 70 per cent of women who smoked both cigarettes and shisha quit cigarettes but continue to smoke shisha during pregnancy. The finding suggests that people mistakenly believe shisha to be less harmful than cigarettes. Smoking shisha for one hour is equivalent to 200 cigarettes according to the World Health Organisation.

Nearly a third of women did not think second hand smoke was harmful to unborn children.

Similar findings were shared across the region. Dr Sana El Mhamdi, from the Faculty of Medicine at Montasir University in Tunisia, presented a 2015-2016 study of 500 pregnant women in Tunisia. Of these, two out of three were at high risk of second hand smoke exposure.

There is a significant relationship between passive smoking and premature birth, low birth weight, impaired foetal growth, preterm delivery, spontaneous abortion and foetal distress.

At the discussion, it was suggested that making homes smoke free would be more effective than targeting individuals.

“We’re not telling husbands to quit smoking, we’re saying smoke outside,” said Dr El Shahawy. “We don’t think this is difficult to attain.”

One barrier to smoke free homes is the culture of hospitality. Families are often reluctant to ask guests not to smoke in their house.

Without a smoke-free home, children are at risk. Dr Scott Sherman, an associate Professor of Medicine, at New York University’s School of Medicine, said: “We have seen from all the data that it has absolutely no affect if parents say to their kids ‘don’t smoke’ and they have a pack of cigarettes in the pocket.”