Saudi Arabia has come a long way in combating the menace of smoking. Be it in the form of cigarettes or Sheesha (water pipe), the banning of this practice in public places such as malls, office buildings and restaurants has been welcomed by most residents.
This menace to public health and the economy is often staggering. This has led to long-term health issues costing governments’ extraordinary amounts of money towards the care of those afflicted with smoking related diseases. In the United States long-term health issues cost the government a whopping $193 billion loss to the economy — an amount directly related to smoking caused illnesses and lost productivity.
China is no less vulnerable. A 2011 report by Chinese health experts estimated that 3.5 million Chinese would die each year because of smoking-related disease within the next 15 to 20 years. One can imagine the additional effect on growth and productivity on the world’s second largest economy as more and more people get struck down with debilitating diseases caused by smoking.
Advanced countries are fighting back. Public smoking is banned. Taxes on the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco related products are extraordinarily high, and labeling on cigarette packs is often very graphic and clear: Smoking kills! From the United States to Australia, governments are clamping on tobacco companies with regulations to throttle consumption and it seems to be having effect.
In much of the Third World there is vulnerability, perhaps because of less stringent regulations or ignorance of the dangers such products will cause. The cigarette manufacturers smarting from losses elsewhere have set up regional headquarters in the UAE and man them with Arab nationals to market their products to the regional population. And it appears to be working. In the GCC, statistics indicate that smoking and tobacco consumption in the GCC is on an unprecedented rise, and especially among the young.
Earlier this month a report came out that the price of tobacco and tobacco products may increase between 20 to 30 percent in Saudi Arabia in the coming three months. This was attributed to the pressures and restrictions being enforced by the Customs department.
While tobacco prices have steadily increased over the years, there has been no change in custom duties since the last increase in 2000 according to Abdul Mohsin Al Shaneifi, director of restrictions and tariffs in the customs department. What this tells me is that the obscene profits generated by the higher prices are not going to go to the government’s treasury but to the pockets of the very people who are responsible for distributing these harmful products.
It is no wonder that the representatives of the tobacco companies based in the UAE enjoy a lavish lifestyle. For them, every price increase means more profit and more bonuses, regardless of the health miseries generated. So how do we fight back? Let us take care of the problem before it becomes a bigger problem.
Anti-smoking campaigns must be introduced early on in schools. Televised public service messages on the dangers of smoking should be screened during televised soccer games where viewership is heavy. The government must slap heavy cigarette import duties to pay for the ever-climbing cost of health-care for smoke-related diseases. The taxes should also fund countrywide anti-smoking educational campaigns. The promotional activities and financial affairs of the regional tobacco companies’ offices must be routinely audited by independent professionals and reports must be submitted to GCC governments.
As one health official stated, “If we look at the magnitude of this problem and its detrimental effects on health, society and economy, the rapidly growing number of smokers of different ages who squander their money on smoking and the increasing rate of diseases caused by smoking, we will realize that it is important for all civil organizations to join forces to combat tobacco.”
Let us bleed the tobacco companies dry before they finish off our last breath!
This article appeared at the Saudi Gazette