Smoke-free Dubai - the big debate

Will the emirate ever be smoke free? We spark up the conversation

The Knowledge
The Knowledge
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Jenny Hewett sparks up conversation about where anti-smoking campaigns in the emirates are headed.

F  or smokers in the city, lighting up at free will just about anywhere isn’t as easy as it once was. Despite the fact that Dubai is still one of the cheapest major cities in the world to buy cigarettes, laws are gradually being implemented to help phase out smoking in public places, as well as the occurrence of tobacco addiction in both teens and adults. While Aussies fork out around Dhs85 for the world’s most expensive pack of smokes according to data company Numbeo, cigarettes in Dubai are substantially more affordable at Dhs10 a pop, yet still more than you pay for the world’s cheapest pack in Pakistan at Dhs3.73.

The most recent statistics from the World Health Organisation show that the top cause of death in Dubai is cardiovascular disease, of which smoking is a major factor. Earlier this year, Dubai Municipality implemented its latest law, which sees stricter control on the sales of tobacco to under 18s as well as the banning of smoking in cars when a child under 12 is in the vehicle. Though the laws have come a long way in the past seven years, there is still a lot to be done to follow in the footsteps of places with more progressive laws, such as Australia and Europe.

‘Back in 2006 when I arrived, you could smoke pretty much anywhere you wanted including malls, restaurants and cafés’, says Schalk Pienaar, bar manager of Urban Bar & Kitchen (UBK) at the Mövenpick Jumeirah Lakes Towers. ‘What really changed was that venues with restaurant licenses had to have a designated smoking area, but for bars the law has stayed the same,’ he adds. UBK is one of the huge number of Dubai bars to allow smoking inside, with a designated non-smoking area for diners.

The appeal for smokers is a no-brainer. ‘There is a big smoking community in the UAE and many of them frequent bars; they enjoy not having restriction when it comes to smoking,’ says Schalk. ‘It creates a relaxed environment and it induces more spending and a feeling of freedom.’

But that view isn’t shared by most non-smoking health-conscious Dubaians, who are finding it enduringly difficult to socialise in the city. ‘I don’t go to clubs because of the smoke,’ says British resident Mo Hussain. ‘There’s nowhere in my area that I know of that’s smoke-free. My first thought is they can the open a door or at least introduce smoke-free happy hours,’ he says.

Those partial to the odd cigarette are adamant the problem lies in non-smokers. ‘If people don’t like smoking, they can choose to hang out in non-smoking environments,’ says Dubai-based British resident Scarlett Goddard. ‘If they are worried about their health, then late-night clubs, with loud music and beverages, doesn’t seem like an ideal activity anyway,’ she says. ‘As for the smell of cigarette smoke, I can guarantee to you that clubs and bars where you can no longer smoke, smell a lot worse. Cigarettes actually camouflage the age-old smell of dirty carpet and sweat,’ Scarlett says.

According to reports by the Ministry of Health in 2013, one in three UAE residents under the age of 18 are sparking up, a statistic that has propelled anti-smoking campaigns. Dr Hanan Obaid, Head of Community Health Services programme section at Dubai Health Authority and the leader of the Tobacco Free Dubai project says that since the campaign’s launch in 2009, the focus going forward is on increasing the awareness of the hazards of smoking in the community, targeting teenagers and building infrastructure for smoking cessation clinics.

‘We concentrate more on schools, because our statistics show that there is a 14.6 percent occurrence of smokers in schools and at universities it is around 17.9 percent. It’s more common in boys than girls,’ she says. ‘There are also passive smokers among those students, because their parents or their peers are smoking,’ says Dr Hanan. ‘In schools the second-hand smokers count for around 29 percent and in university around 46.4 percent. We think that if we concentrate on age groups between 13 to 15, we will prevent smoking in adulthood,’ she says.

Passive smoking is one of the greatest concerns for most non-smokers frequenting bars and clubs in Dubai, as well as for staff. ‘I believe that, if most staff had a choice, the vast majority would prefer to work in a non-smoking environment,’ says Carlos Santos, Portuguese bar manager of Bahri Bar at Dubai’s Mina A’Salam hotel, which allows smoking both indoors and outdoors. ‘Smoking-related illnesses are very real and a concern for us all.’ On top of that, there is often inadequate circulation in place to deal with the level of smoke experienced by some bars. ‘Extraction systems in some venues are below standards and the atmosphere becomes very unpleasant so a non-smoking rule would be a practical and health-conscious move,’ says Carlos.

To date, no new laws have been proposed for banning smoking in bars. Some outlets, however, are already taking their own small steps. In April this year Zuma banned cigars in its bar and lounge following compaints from guests.

In the meantime, Dubai Health Authority is concerned with getting to the root of the problem. ‘We now have two smoking cessation clinics belonging to Dubai Health Authority’s Primary Health Care, one in Al Safa Centre and one in Al Barsha Health Centre. We also have one at Dubai Men’s College, Higher College of Technology and this is only targeting students in university,’ she says.

The clinics assist those who want to quit and offer packages for around Dhs800, which include visits to the doctor, tests and medication. As the saying goes, it’s never too late to quit.

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