War on nicotine: plans to weaken cigarettes could 'transform society'

Joe Biden and Jacinda Ardern's assault on tobacco could decrease cigarette consumption and save millions of lives

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A war on nicotine could transform society's fight against cancer, heart disease and ill-health.

Medical experts said plans in the US and New Zealand to slash the amount of nicotine in cigarettes could save millions of lives.

US President Joe Biden's administration is reported to be planning an assault on the tobacco industry, just days after Jacinda Ardern's government in New Zealand set out plans to make cigarettes so weak they are no longer addictive.

Reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes would push more smokers towards less harmful alternatives and improve public health, doctors said.

Recent government proposals in the US would lower nicotine levels in all cigarettes sold in the country. This could reduce the number of people addicted to tobacco, a report said.

Cigarettes are responsible for around 480,000 deaths every year in the US. In the UAE, around 13 per cent of all annual fatalities are linked to smoking.

It is no secret many still struggle with quitting and will likely keep smoking cigarettes, mentholated or not

Reports from the US suggest Mr Biden is considering requiring tobacco companies to cut nicotine to below addictive levels to encourage more people to quit.

“Reducing nicotine levels would reduce the addictive potential of tobacco, so we could expect the number of cigarettes consumed would also decrease,” said Dr Arun Warrier, an oncologist at Aster Hospital in Al Mankhool, Dubai.

“It would definitely help lower the incidence of respiratory and cardiac diseases, and also cancers which result from cigarette smoking.”

Reducing cigarette and tobacco consumption is a key performance indicator of the UAE National Agenda.

It aims to reduce tobacco consumption from 21.6 per cent to 15.7 per cent among men and from 1.9 per cent to 1.66 per cent in women by the end of the year.

A ban on menthol cigarettes has also been mooted by the US administration, as they are cited as a gateway to stronger cigarettes among young people, a claim strongly denied by the tobacco industry.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded in 2013 that minty cigarettes were harder to quit and posed a greater health risk than regular cigarettes.

“Menthol can make cigarettes more attractive to younger people,” said Dr Warrier.

“They may feel they are similar to chewing gum, but they expose users to harmful chemicals which can have a serious health impact.”

A drive to reduce smoking in the UAE


Cigarettes in a local supermarket.

Cigarettes, energy and soft drinks are going to be expensive as the UAE is all set to implement Excise Tax on October 1, 2017.

The Federal Tax Authority on Wednesday announced that the authority is all set to implement Excise Tax in the country from next week. 

On October 1, the excise tax will go into effect at a rate of 100 per cent on tobacco and energy drinks that include stimulants or substances that induce mental or physical stimulation, such as caffeine, taurine, ginseng and gaurana. The tax also will go into effect on soft drinks, at a rate of 50 per cent.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: Anna Zacharias
Section: NA
Tobacco is relatively cheap in the Middle East and efforts to control age limits are often weak. Reem Mohammed / The National

By 2025, it is estimated there will be around one billion smokers worldwide.

The UAE’s National Tobacco Control Committee involves 12 government entities to draft tobacco control-related legislations and regulations, along with a database about tobacco use, its products and trade.

Since 2010, the Ministry of Health and Prevention said the number of smokers in the country fell 18 per cent between 2010 and 2018, while a network of 16 cessation clinics has been established.

Although highly addictive, nicotine is not the primary cause of smoking-related diseases; carbon monoxide, a gas formed in cigarette smoke, has been identified as a leading cause of cardiovascular disease.

Dr Ragab Allam, a specialist in cardiovascular disease at Bareen International Hospital in Abu Dubai's Mohammed bin Zayed City, called for more nicotine research before a similar policy is adopted in the UAE.

“There is no guarantee this kind of measure is 100 per cent effective [in reducing smoking harm],” he said.

“Low-dose cigarettes and e-cigarettes are already available on the market and they should be encouraged.”

A survey by Euromonitor found regional smokers were reluctant to use e-cigarettes as a quitting aid, with just 1.8 per cent turning to vaping in 2020.

That could change if nicotine levels are lowered in conventional cigarettes and smokers are encouraged to use less harmful alternatives.

Vaping as a substitute to smoking

An Emirati man poses while smoking an e-cigarette at his home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates August 22, 2019. Picture taken August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
Vaping or e-cigarettes are considered by many scientists as a healthier alternative to smoking. Reuters / Christopher Pike

According to medical journal Science, vaping nicotine is set to replace smoking over the next 10 years, and could help to prevent 1.6 million premature deaths worldwide.

RELX International, Asia's leading e-cigarette brand which just launched in the UAE, encourages strict social responsibility and youth prevention policies to deter young people from using e-cigarettes via its Guardian Programme.

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“Adult smokers should first and foremost be encouraged to quit tobacco and nicotine use altogether,” said Robert Naouss, external affairs director at RELX for the Mena region.

“It is no secret, however, that many still struggle with quitting and will likely keep smoking cigarettes, mentholated or not.”

Tobacco harm reduction policies have already been embraced in New Zealand and the UK.

Similar plans to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes have already been proposed in New Zealand, where legislators suggest the legal smoking age should gradually increase, eventually outlawing cigarettes for anyone born after January 1, 2004. The nation aims to be smoke-free by 2025.

In the UK, some 70,000 smokers switched cigarettes for less-harmful vaping following encouragement from health authorities.

In September, Dubai World Trade Centre will host a huge vaping expo.

The World Vape Show will be staged from September 19 to 21 and will showcase the latest products from leading international manufacturers.

Organisers said the UAE is perfectly placed to become a regional hub for the growing e-cigarette market, just two years on from regulation changes allowing products to be legally sold over the counter for the first time.

“With favourable business rates and a number of free zones, this may encourage more manufacturers and distributors to start production and distribution from the UAE,” said event manager Jake Nixon, of Quartz Business Media.

“As more people are already turning to smoking alternatives, this development could definitely increase the trend.”