Ahmed Aun was a championship swimmer as a teen, competing in 50-metre races and winning a host of medals.
Then he started smoking a medwakh pipe and, by his own admission, “ran out of breath”.
“I started at a very early age with a group of guys back in the days of recklessness,” said the 34-year-old Syrian, as he scooped a large jar of dokha tobacco from a shelf in an Abu Dhabi smoking shop.
“I felt like trying it and since that day I always have a medwakh in my hand.”
Dokha, the strong powdered tobacco smoked with a medwakh pipe, is hugely popular among Emiratis as well as Arabs within the broader Mena region. Studies show it is far worse for the body than smoking cigarettes.
“I had to stop swimming – I started running out of breath because of medwakh,” said Mr Aun, who works in retail.
“I even had to quit boxing eight years ago because it requires a strong breath.
“But I’m not interested in quitting [smoking] – in my life I handle a lot of pressure, so instead of taking it out on people I will puff it out.
“Nobody dies before his time – whatever is written in my destiny will happen.”
Medwakh is little known outside of the Gulf and Mr Aun said he had raised the suspicions of a number of airport officials over the years.
“It happened to me in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon,” he said. “They [customs] would stop me at the airport thinking the tobacco was hashish.”
The highlight of medwakh, he said, was when it was smoked first thing in the morning.
“The blood is still calm at that time and the shot is felt stronger than any other time,” he said.
Doctors say the habit can lead to mouth cancer and heart disease.
Abdullah, a salesman at an Abu Dhabi smoking shop who would only give his first name, said it was one of the store’s most popular products.
“Those who come to buy it are already addicted. We receive between 50 and 70 buyers a day, but not only for medwakh. Some come for shisha spare parts or mu’assel,” he said in reference to the syrupy shisha tobacco mix.
Buyers should need to present proof of age showing they are 18 or over, but shops often fail to check.
Rami Jayousi, from Jordan, has been smoking medwakh since his teens.
“I started with group of bad friends,” he said.
The accountant, who is 29, said the side effects leave him tired and short of breath.
“I switch to cigarettes, and then back to medwakh,” he said.
“I like medwakh more, but it makes you more exhausted, and affects your breathing when you work out.”
Mr Jayousi takes about 15 to 25 hits per day.
“The first puff you take after fasting is the best, and that is why medwakh smokers increase during Ramadan,” he said.
“For five seconds you enter a different world – it is like you are paralysed.”
Neither men was proud of his habit and Mr Aun said he was “always trying to quit”.
“But I keep bouncing back, whether it is cigarettes or medwakh,” he said.