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Saudi Arabia Launches Sweeping Survey Of Tobacco Use In Bid To End Smoking

The initiative is being billed as a major step forward in a region in which the rate of smoking is on the rise

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health is launching the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) for the first time to determine the extent of tobacco use in the kingdom and assess ways to combat it. The survey, to be carried out under the supervision of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will be conducted over the course of two months on a sample of both men and women 15 years old and over in 12,800 households across the nation.

According to Dr. Heba Fouad, Regional Surveillance Officer for the WHO, the survey gathers information not only on tobacco use but also on related programs. “It provides an opportunity to enhance the capacity to design, implement, monitor and evaluate control policies in a country,” she explained to The Media Line.

Despite a decline in smoking in most of the world, its prevalence appears to be increasing in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and African Region, according to the WHO. Specifically, 180 million men in the Middle East and Africa are predicted to be smoking in 2025—twice as many as in 2000 based on data published in June 2018 by Euromonitor International.

“The spread of tobacco use in the Eastern Mediterranean is largely driven by the influence of the tobacco industry on decision makers,” Dr. Hani Al Gouhmani, Eastern Mediterranean Regional Director for the Framework Convention Alliance, a network of groups that promotes tobacco control, told The Media Line. “Most of these countries lack strict tobacco-related policies, and in the few where policy is present there is weak implementation.”

Dr. Fouad of the WHO also attributed the high rate of tobacco use in the region to the “availability and affordability” of different types of products, one of which is the water pipe. Commonly referred to as hookah or shisha, it has been used for centuries and is part of the region’s social fabric.

According to Dr. Kenneth Ward, a professor in the School of Public Health at University of Memphis, this “entrenched cultural tradition” makes smoking less taboo.

“Cigarettes and water pipes are the two major forms of tobacco use. Cigarettes are still very popular, but hookah has had a big resurgence partly due to an increase in cafe culture and because it’s more acceptable for women to smoke it than cigarettes,” he told The Media Line.

Despite a long-held belief that water pipes are less harmful than cigarettes, the CDC pegs the amount of smoke inhaled during a typical hookah session at about 90,000 milliliters (ml), compared to 500–600 ml inhaled from a cigarette.

“To get tobacco rate use down there needs to be strong and enforced policy initiatives, such as banning smoking in public places, banning advertising, increasing taxation and youth education” Dr. Ward stressed.

To this end, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health recently introduced a smartphone app for reporting smoking violations in shared spaces or selling tobacco to individuals below the age of 18. The country is the first in the Middle East to adopt plain-white packaging, which nevertheless includes a warning, on tobacco products.

“During 2018 there was heightened interest in tobacco control in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and they implemented policies on a national level,” Dr. Al Gouhmani of the Framework Convention Alliance concluded.

Indeed, regional governments appear intent on bucking the trend regarding tobacco use, the negative health effects of which are liable to translate into growing financial burdens.