Figures from the World Health Organisation have revealed the extent of the UAE's obesity epidemic. Some 39.9 per cent of women in the Emirates are obese, the seventh highest proportion in the world. Among men, 25.6 per cent were classified as obese, the ninth highest figure. The fattest nations are both Pacific islands: 74.9 per cent of Tongan women are classified as obese, as are 57.4 per cent of men in the Cook Islands.
World Health Statistics 2009, a WHO study that breaks down statistics from its member states, was conducted over the past year and released last month. Saudi Arabia, the only other GCC country covered, ranked worse than the UAE for men (26.4 per cent obese) and women (44 per cent). In Britain, 22.3 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women were obese, while in the US the figures were 31.1 per cent - higher than the UAE - and 33.2 per cent respectively.
Concern has been growing over the UAE's obesity epidemic. In April the Ministry of Health launched a three-month campaign, The Fat Truth, to combat childhood obesity, deemed by government officials to stand at 12 per cent. While the survey does not go into the reasons for the country's growing weight problem, health experts have long blamed poor diet and inactive lifestyles. The report also compared rates of smoking, finding that while fewer UAE adults smoked (14.4 per cent) than the global and regional averages (26 per cent and 18.3 per cent respectively), the number of adolescents (19.5 per cent) was slightly higher than the averages (13.6 per cent and 15.2 per cent).
Smoking among women, however, was well below the global average. Just 2.6 per cent of women in the UAE admitted to smoking, against a global average of 9.6 per cent. On the Pacific island of Nauru some 52.4 per cent of women smoke, while the figures for the US (21.5 per cent) and UK (34.7 per cent) were also much higher. Doctors are warning that further action needs to be taken on both fronts to curb an escalation in potentially lethal diseases such as lung cancer, diabetes and heart disease. "What the figures do not show is that it is not just the lungs which are affected by smoking; the cardiovascular risk is much greater and hits people sooner," said Dr Asif Sattar, a pulmonologist at City Hospital in Dubai.
"Shisha is an even bigger problem than cigarettes. When I first arrived in Dubai eight months ago, I found it shocking to see entire families, including children, smoking shisha in parks. Now it is banned but it just goes to show how socially acceptable it is. It explains why chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the biggest killer here. "I think if we continue with unhealthy habits like smoking, in the next 10 years diseases like lung cancer are going to be even more widespread."
Dr Ahmed Kalban, the acting head of primary health care at the Dubai Health Authority, who last month helped launch a year-long anti-smoking campaign aimed at women and children, said the increase in young people smoking could be caused by a more stressful lifestyle. Dr Wedad al Maidoor, head of the Government's national tobacco control committee, said: "Smoking is a growing health hazard but we are trying to do a lot to control it.
"Teenagers start smoking because they think it is cool, plus the price and availability of cigarettes have made it easy in the past." Dr al Maidoor is spearheading a federal tobacco law that will push up the price of cigarettes as well as controlling tobacco advertising and smoking in public places. The law is being considered by the Government but could take a year to be set in concrete. Despite the high rate of obesity, women are likely to live longer than men. The average life expectancy for women was 80 years in 2007, up from 75 in 1990. The average man in the UAE lives to 77, up from 72 in 1990.