A new tax on tobacco and sugar-laden drinks should be the first step in a wider attack on the causes of poor public health, doctors have said.
Medics described the doubling of the cost of cigarettes, signed by the President, Sheikh Khalifa, on Monday as a significant milestone but said the move should be viewed as the start of a mindset change in the way we live our lives.
Carbonated soft drinks like Coca Cola will also be 50 per cent more expensive. The Excise Tax is due to come in some time between October and December.
The introduction of VAT on such products is expected to hit smokers and buyers with a further 5 per cent from January 1.
Dr Jairam Aithal, a cardiovascular consultant at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said he would like to see the government to take further action.
“Sugar is a killer, and how can it be right that a 2.5 litre bottle of Coke will cost less than buying the equivalent volume in individual cans?
“It is encouraging the consumer to buy more. That needs to change, as this pricing is pushing people towards an unhealthy option.”
UAE retailers have to date sold cigarettes, sugary-drinks and junk food at low prices, and cigarettes in particular are much cheaper than in other developed countries.
A can of Monster - a highly-caffeinated energy drink - will rise from Dh6 to Dh12, for example, while a packet of 20 Marlboro cigarettes will rise from Dh11 to Dh22. This brings the cost much closer to the prices often seen in Europe. But cut price brands currently selling for Dh2 per pack will only increase to Dh4, as there is no minimum price set out by the government.
“Whilst it is a great first step, something more concrete in the form of greater punishment is needed, as nothing good comes from smoking and carbonated drinks," Dr Aithal said.
“Putting tax on something won’t necessarily stop people from smoking or drinking sugary drinks.
“People should be rewarded for looking after their health. We have seen initiatives for cab drivers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi who show good practice, and it is clear that positive reinforcement and incentives are as useful as fines and punishments.
“It gives people more of an incentive to change their lifestyle.”
Dr Aithal also advocates concessions on the cost of health insurance for non-smokers and those adopting healthier lifestyles, and said those continuing to smoke should face further financial penalties.
“Insurance premiums of smokers should be considerably higher to act as a deterrent, rather than just a tax on the product – which most smokers here will be able to afford,” he said.
“It is the natural next step. The only issue is that we would have to rely on honesty, as it can be hard to confirm a smoker just through a routine medical test.”
Effects of smoking only tend to show up on x-rays or blood tests if there is an advanced related health condition, such as lung cancer.
As part of wider measures to improve public health, more running paths and cycling routes should be built, according to Dr Aithal.
“At least with cigarette smoking, there is a continuing acknowledgement that it is bad for health – but that is not happening with sugar, a key cause of diabetes and obesity which are major problems in the UAE."
Passive smoking remains a significant risk to public health, despite efforts by municipalities to place restrictions on shisha cafes.
In Dubai, all cafes must display prominent health warning posters, with pregnant women and children banned from entering. UAE law also prohibits smoking in cars if the child is under 12, but these laws need to be enforced to be effective.
In 2016, the New York University Abu Dhabi studied the effects of hookah smoking indoors on the air quality inside. In 33 homes studied, carbon monoxide levels in rooms where shisha was used were found to be five times higher than in rooms where cigarettes were smoked
Speaking when the new law was announced by the UAE Federal Tax Authority in May, Dr Wedad al Maidoor, director of the National Tobacco Control Committee, said there is a clear link between price and consumption of cigarettes. But she did not rule out further restrictions to help reduce smoking related deaths..
“It is proven a 10 per cent increase in tobacco tax usually results in a 5-10 per cent reduction in the amount of smokers, particularly in those under 18 years old,” she said.
“There is a fixed strategy in place to reduce the number of smokers and on tobacco control. A key component of that is taxation, like we have seen in other countries like Australia and the UK.”
One non-smoker, Mohamed Al Marzooqi, a facility contract manager from Abu Dhabi, 32, said more controls are required on smoking of not just tobacco, but also water pipes, medwakh and the lighting of carcinogenic incense.
“People generally don’t understand the law on smoking in public areas,” he said.
“I don’t think that taxation will improve the local mindset towards smoking. All forms of smoke, including carcinogenics in bukhour and incense should be controlled better.
“There needs to be a mindset change as someone spending Dh20 on cigarettes, will still spend Dh50. It is unlikely to stop them smoking.”