Still Smoking: Middle East Tobacco Consumption Remains High
Success in Turkey overshadowed by continued increase in Gulf states
A new study shows that overall global tobacco use has started to decline, though many Middle East countries are still struggling to stamp out smoking. The sixth edition of The Tobacco Atlas, compiled by the American Cancer Society and Vital Strategies, outlines global tobacco statistics, including consumption trends and potential solutions.
Basing its data on tobacco sales, the report notes that cigarette consumption in the Middle East has remained stable over the past decade, at an estimated 400 billion cigarettes per year, though this represents an increase of 100 billion since 1999.
However, variations were noted in different countries across the region. Aside from Turkey, where smoking has been halved in recent years, the report shows significant increases in the prevalence of tobacco usage in nations like Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Dr. Jeffrey Drope, co-editor of The Tobacco Atlas and Vice President of Economic and Health Policy Research at the American Cancer Society, contributes the decrease in tobacco consumption in Turkey to concerted policies implemented at the governmental level. “If you take Turkey out of the Middle East, usage has in fact gone up,” Drope told The Media Line, adding that “differences in cigarette smoking between counties is largely dictated by government policy and, therefore, countries that are doing something to combat tobacco see clear effects.”
Although global tobacco consumption is slowing, the report noted that smoking continues to climb in many African and Mideast states. “Tobacco companies are smart,” Drope explained, “they double down in countries that fail to make policies that effectively curb tobacco usage and generally target nations with weak and unstable governments.”
With respect to Israel, more than 1,144,000 adults (over 15 years of age) and some 13,000 children (10-14 years-old) continue to use tobacco daily. Tobacco usage among adult males is at 41 percent.
“The problem in Israel is not that people are not aware, it’s an issue of legislation,” according to Dr. Avital Pato Ben Ari, Director of the Public Information and Health Promotion Department at the Israel Cancer Association. “Israel is only doing fine in terms of heightening cigarette prices,” she told The Media Line, “but very poorly when it comes to the price of self-rolling tobacco. This means young people have shifted to rolling their own cigarettes or smoking hookah as it’s far cheaper.”
Ben Ari also highlighted that Israeli authorities do not enforce existing anti-tobacco laws, as “schools, for example, are meant to be smoke free, yet we know that these rules are not being upheld.” She also stressed that in Israel “the advertising of cigarettes and tobacco products is not completely banned.
“A child shouldn’t walk into a grocery store and see a cigarette at eye level,” she expounded, “and there is also no plain packaging or enforced graphic image laws in place that are proven to be effective in combating tobacco addiction.”
Despite the statistics showing cigarette usage among adult males as high as 70.2 percent in Jordan, both Drope and Ben Ari are optimistic that consumption levels will decline in the future.
“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] has declared a fight against smoking, by banning the sale of cigarettes on bases,” Ben Ari said, adding “this is crucial in changing the social norm of smoking.”
For his part, Drope pointed to “nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Iran which show a pretty clear commitment to make changes. But several countries in the Middle East,” he qualified, “are still failing to react to the ever-growing issue and I hope this will change in the near future.”
(Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)
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