A man displays a pack of cigarettes outside a tobacco shop in the Saudi capital Riyadh late on June 11, 2017. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

Fake Cigarettes Spark Outcry in Saudi Arabia

Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 18

New cigarette labeling and packaging rules in Saudi markets have sparked a deep controversy among Saudi smokers, who took to social media to blame the government of “adulterating” imported cigarettes. Thankfully, I don’t smoke and can’t, therefore, appreciate the difference between the so-called “original” cigarettes and the new adulterated ones. Maybe the two are the same and maybe the new one is less harmful than the original. I don’t know. Regardless, the issue of the new cigarette packaging raises a far wider question related to smoking in Saudi Arabia: Why do we still allow its import? Why are cigarettes not banned altogether, just like other drugs are? Why did the world agree to ban substances such as marijuana but allowed legal use of tobacco? The short answer is that when tobacco began spreading centuries ago, no one understood its harms. Back in the old days, people thought of tobacco in the same way they thought of sacred traditions relying on herbs to treat diseases. It resembled religious rituals carried out by different peoples around the world. Ever since, smoking has become part of people’s lives and a right within the rights of the individual. Interestingly, however, tobacco is not the only harmful product consumed by millions of people. Another example is white sugar, whose harms are even greater and more widespread, given its popularity among young children. Ironically, both sugar and tobacco originated from the same geographical area in East Asia, and only became widespread commercial products after being transported to America. Preventing the use of sugar, along with an endless list of other products such as processed meats, hydrogenated oils, and alcohol is virtually impossible. The issue of “fake” or “adulterated” smoke that ignited protests in Saudi Arabia proves that smoking has become an inseparable part of people’s lives, despite its proven harm. Whether it is adulterated or not, it is pure poison – and should, therefore, be kept away from the reach of our people. –Abdallah Bin Bujeit (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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