Muscat: Oman's Ministry of Health has joined the World Health Organisation (WHO) in calling for an increase in tobacco taxation, as the world prepares to observe World No Tobacco Day on Saturday.
Raising taxes on tobacco is the focus of this year's World No Tobacco Day. According to the WHO, taxation is one of the most effective ways of curbing tobacco use. Higher tobacco taxes raise tobacco prices leading to reduction in tobacco consumption. The WHO says that increasing the price of tobacco reduces tobacco use by discouraging initiation among potential users, encouraging current users to quit and helping to prevent relapse in those who have stopped.
The Sultanate's Ministry of Health also believes that one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use is to levy heavier taxes on tobacco products.
"The main reason for the prevalence of tobacco here is that it is widely available at cheap prices. The lowest prices in this region are in this region," said Dr Jawad Al Lawati, senior consultant and rapporteur of the National Tobacco Control Committee at the Ministry of Health.
Speaking to the Times of Oman, Al Lawati said Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have not raised taxes on tobacco products since 2000 while tobacco companies have increased the prices of their products.
According to him, the current tax is 100 per cent of the price shown to customs or OMR10 for 1,000 cigarettes.
'Tobacco use can become a big problem'
"Whichever is higher," the official said. "Although the income is high in GCC countries, the prices are the lowest," he said, adding that taxes are higher in other Arab countries since their governments are seeking to generate higher revenues.
Al Lawati explained that decisions about taxes are taken unanimously by the GCC nations to prevent smuggling, so Oman cannot impose higher taxes on its own.
A political decision should be taken by the Gulf countries to establish the necessary mechanisms, he added.
Lowest in Arab world
Asked how serious the issue of tobacco use is in Oman, Al Lawati said, "It is not a huge problem, but if you do not control it, it will become a serious problem in a couple of years."
Tobacco use prevalence in Oman is not only the lowest in the GCC but also in the Arab world, he noted, adding that according to the latest data the prevalence among Omani males is 14 per cent and female 0.5 per cent.
In some Arab countries, over 60 per cent of the men and more than 20 per cent of women are smokers, he said.
Al Lawati believes that the taboo surrounding tobacco use is gradually becoming less powerful in Oman due to the liberalisation process. "In the past, it was unbearable for a father to see his son smoking." However, he said, fortunately still the Omani society is more conservative in this regard compared to many other countries.
The Ministry of Health official said that the most common form of tobacco used by adults is cigarette. After that comes Shisha, he added.
According to Al Lawati, prevalence of water pipe use is 6 per cent among Omani men and less than 0.5 per cent among women.
He also said that smokeless tobacco is becoming more popular among schoolchildren.
"It is illegal to sell it, and there is a total ban on it. But still it is smuggled from the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and some other countries and is available in the vicinity of schools."
According to him, smoking is most prevalent in Muscat (mainly expatriates) and Salalah (mainly locals).
Asked if the average age of tobacco users is decreasing, Al Lawati said that since changes take place over a certain period of time, it cannot be claimed that the average age is dropping.
"Such studies are often conducted every 10 years," he said, adding that according to the previous studies, the ages between 18 to 20 are critical.
"If you do not take up smoking during this period, you are less likely to become a smoker," Al Lawati said. Commenting on the psychological factors that drive people to use tobacco, he said that they include stress and tension at home and work as well as peer pressure. "However, there is nothing much that the government can do about this. What we can do is increase taxes, develop more educational programmes, put more health warnings and implement stricter laws."
Al Lawati said the fact that Oman joined the 2003 WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) two years after its adoption shows that it is determined to tackle the issue of tobacco use.
However, the laws currently in place in the country should be implemented more strictly, he added. There is no national legislation in this regard yet, said the official. "The draft has been sent to the cabinet and is waiting for approval."
He went on to say that discussions are underway at the Municipal Council to adopt new stricter rules including laws to extend no-smoking areas to some beaches, certain public gardens and parks and some open markets.
"However, it (the ban) will not be everywhere. People will still be allowed to smoke (in public)."
He also said that there is a law which prohibits selling tobacco to minors (below 18).
In addition, he noted that passive smoke exposure seems to be reducing given the implementation of tougher rules.
Commenting on the most common diseases associated with smoking, he said that cardiovascular diseases and then cancer, which is developed over time, are the most common.
"The most common thing about Omanis is that they suffer heart attack." Smokers also develop respiratory diseases over the years, he said.
Asked if the government plans to allow the sale of electronic cigarettes, he said no new decision can be made until all aspects of e-cigarettes are fully studied.
"Still we do not know much about it. It should be studied more," Al Lawati said, citing some incidents involving e-cigarettes and a recent study suggesting that electronic cigarette vapour may increase the virulence of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium that is responsible for several difficult-to-treat infections in humans.
The official said that there are two public tobacco cessation clinics in Oman, one in Muscat and one in Nizwa. The demand for treatment at these clinics is not very high since medication is not provided by the government free of cost through the Ministry of Health, he explained.
He added that currently, there is no plan to set up more clinics as the cost of treatment is high (about OMR25 for each person per month) and the relapse rate is high.
Studies show that 80 per cent of the people who quit smoking, take it up again, Al Lawati said, expressing hope that tobacco use will decrease in the country through the will of the people themselves and efforts of the government.
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