Resident Expert: Smoking and Tobacco Use in the UAE

Petr Novák / Wikipedia

Is smoking really a crisis in the UAE?
Official prevalence figures show that tobacco use for UAE nationals is actually lower than in other Middle Eastern countries: only about 20 per cent for men and just one per cent for women. But when we ask questions like 'what proportion of your friends use tobacco?' the numbers go way, way up. So we know it’s a real problem, and we know it's increasing significantly. That's why the students organizing the Think Tank chose this subject, and they came to us for help.

Is the issue mainly with cigarettes?
There are three main forms of smoking in the UAE: cigarettes; the water pipe, or shisha; and midwakh or dokha, which is strong tobacco smoked in a little pipe called a midwakh, with no filter. The word dokha means dizzy, which is how it can make you feel. Cigarettes used to be unacceptable for female Emirati nationals, but we see, at schools and universities, how that's changing. For young men, meanwhile, midwakh is seen as kind of cool and also traditional.

Which form is most dangerous to health?
We don't really have much data on midwakh. But there is some evidence about shisha: in a one-hour water-pipe session a user gets as much carbon monoxide as from 150 cigarettes, and as much tar as from 600 of them.

What has the Public Health Research Center been doing about all this?
NYUAD's PHRC has four main project centers, and smoking cessation is one of them; in fact the smoking center has been in operation the longest of the four, about two years. The PHRC's principal investigator, Dr. Scott Sherman, has put together a tobacco-control research consortium, with people from the government, hospitals, everyone in the country who's involved.

There's going to be a study about social media and smoking cessation?
Yes, the Smoking Cessation Research Center is planning a study about how mobile phones might help Emirati nationals to quit. Smart phones are ubiquitous among nationals, and in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, controlled trials have shown good quit rates with text messages. Instead of going to a smoking-cessation clinic, you send texts to a computer, and it responds with tested messages discouraging you from lighting up. It's as effective as going to a smoking cessation clinic. We want to test that here, and later we'd like to test video messages as well.

Q&A with Dr. Raghib Ali, director of the Public Health Research Center at NYU Abu Dhabi.