The battle to curb the growing number of teenage smokers is being impeded by the ease with which they can get their hands on cigarettes.
Data projections show that 40 per cent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 are smokers, up from 24 per cent five years ago, according to the Ministry of Health.
To fight this trend, Law 15, issued last year by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, set the age for buying tobacco products at 18 and gave vendors the right to ask for proof. The same legislation sets a penalty for selling tobacco to minors of at least one year in jail and/or a fine between Dh100,000 and Dh1 million.
But the law of the land is not the way of the street and teenagers say that despite the new regulations, they have no trouble buying tobacco products in shops.
ER, a 17-year-old student in Abu Dhabi, describes himself as a “very casual smoker” . He tried his first cigarette when he was aged 14 and has never been asked for identification when buying tobacco, despite his youthful appearance.
“I rarely buy a pack, most of the time I bum some off my friends,” ER said. “But even then, they never really have a hard time getting their hands on a pack.”
ER and a friend, with the approval of their parents, agreed to show The National how easy it was for minors to purchase tobacco products. They first went to five neighbourhood grocery stores, where all the friends bought cigarettes. According to ER, buying packs from these small stores “was never a problem”.
However, larger supermarkets and stores proved more conservative. After going to the Smokers’ Centre in Marina Mall, ER came out empty-handed.
“They asked me how old I was, I told them I was 18 and they just shooed me away,” he said. With its main operations based in Dubai, the store chose to follow that emirate’s age restrictions. When ER’s companion gave it another try, claiming he was 21, he was also turned down after failing to present proof.
Petrol stations in Dubai also demonstrated more restraint. The two Emirates and Enoc petrol stations approached in the trial sold cigarettes to 17-year-old AK, without asking for proof of age. However, his 15-year-old companion failed when he tried to buy cigarettes.
“When I was younger and would pass by the petrol station with my school uniform, they would immediately reject selling me cigarettes,” AK said.
Shisha cafes, popular hang-outs for young adults, are also more careful.
“Most cafes would ask how old you are,” said ER, “and if they don’t believe you, they request an ID. A lot of CID roam around in these cafes, which is why I think they are extra careful.”
Cigarettes and shisha are only some of the tobacco products that are popular with adolescents.
“Only a select few teens smoke cigarettes,” ER said. “Many others smoke DK.”
DK is short for dokha, which means “dizziness” in Arabic. Dokha is a sifted preparation of Iranian tobacco mixed with aromatic leaf and bark herbs. The dokha is usually placed into a medwakh, a small wooden pipe, from which the mix is smoked for a buzz. ER and his friend named a hotspot where teenagers often purchased their dose of DK.
Describing the relationship between the teenagers and the shopkeepers at this particular spot, ER’s companion said it was amiable.
“They’re always happy to see each other, and whenever they buy the stuff the sellers would reward them with a small bottle of cherry juice,” the friend said.
The National asked ER and his companion to put it to the test. After disappearing into the store for a few minutes, he and his friend returned with a medwakh starter pack in one hand, and cherry juice in the other.
Dr Salim Adib, the public health department manager at Health Authority – Abu Dhabi (HAAD), explained that controlling the sales of medwakh products has proved difficult.
“The issue of medwakh is much more complicated since the tobacco used is not imported in pre-formed packages, like cigarettes and shisha, and therefore less easily regulated,” he said. “Our Haad tobacco task force is focusing on a special plan of action regarding this very culturally specific aspect of tobacco use in this country.”
Dr Adib said the action plan for the regulation of medwakh involved developing a research agenda to analyse the chemical content of medwakh products so that they could be compared with cigarettes. That has already been done for shisha by a research group at the American University of Beirut, he said.
In addition, a campaign to educate the public about the adverse health effects associated with medwakh is also planned, as well as an exploration of the possibility of regulating the sale of “free package” tobacco and the medwakh pipes.
This plan of action was to be developed next year in parallel to the full implementation of federal Law 15, Dr Adib added.
A new federal bylaw aims to address the ease with which adolescents can get their hands on tobacco products.
According to Ms al Maidoor, the new federal bylaw would reinforce existing legislation with further regulations that restrict the sale of tobacco in smaller stores. Shops would be more closely monitored and penalties more rigorously enforced.
Rules are also being proposed by the Ministry of Health to prevent the sale of cigarettes in school districts. “A radius of 150 to 200 metres from schools has been proposed,” Ms al Maidoor said.
In some areas this rule has already been implemented. In Abu Dhabi, an emirate-wide ban on indoor smoking is also in progress as part of the new federal bylaw.
The bylaw is currently pending official approval and would most likely be implemented by the end of 2011, Ms al Maidoor said.
Adnoc stations' ban on cigarettes and smoking
While most petrol stations across the Emirates sell cigarettes, in Abu Dhabi the situation is different.
Adnoc stations have refrained from selling cigarettes. Anyone smoking at Adnoc stations or their affiliates will be asked to stop. Should a person choose not to do so, then he or she will not receive Adnoc services.
“This is an initiative taken up by Adnoc on their own and we are very happy with their decision,” said Wedad al Maidoor, the head of the tobacco control team at the Ministry of Health. Ibrahim al Marzouqi, Adnoc’s public relations manager, said this decision was taken out of a sense of responsibility towards the community and the belief that smoking causes great harm to the safety and health of both the individual and society.
“This has been decided regardless of profit and loss. We consider each person who doesn’t smoke as a direct profit to us,” he said.