By Courtney Trenwith
Saudi Arabia has among the cheapest cigarettes in the world but is being urged to raise the price amid escalating smoking rates
Saudi Arabia is considering increasing the price of cigarettes from SAR5 ($1.30) to SAR35 ($9.30) per packet within five years, according to Arab News.
The dramatic price increase would be three times the current price of cigarettes in the UAE and more than most states in the US, which has a high tax on nicotine.
The kingdom presently has among the lowest cigarettes in the world.
The higher price is intended to discourage smoking in the kingdom, which has been increasing.
More than 20 percent of students smoked in 2013, up from 15 percent in 2003, according to the anti-smoking charity Naqaa.
The World Health Organisation also said tobacco use among females increased from 3 to 9 percent during the same period.
The number of tobacco users also had increased at five times the rate of those trying to quit, WHO said.
Naqaa director general Mohammad Almayouf said the kingdom was considering four suggestions to reduce smoking rates but his preferred was to hike up prices, which has been successful in Western countries.
“There are four suggestions which if implemented could help curb the increasing numbers of smokers, with the most important one being to increase the price of a pack of cigarettes gradually within the next five years to cost SAR35,” he was quoted as saying.
“From the experiences of advanced countries, the rates of tobacco use dropped when the authorities raised its price.
“For example, the number of smokers dropped to 24 percent compared to 48 percent when the country gradually raised prices over a period of 30 years.”
A packet of cigarettes costs between $5.50-$12 in the US, according to a study in August by theawl.com, while the cheapest standard packet of cigarettes in the UK is about £4 ($6.50).
Australia has the highest tax applied to nicotine in the world, with a packet of cigarettes costing an average $16, with some more than $20.
However, Australia has among the lowest rates of smoking in the world. High prices have seen the rate of smoking among men drop from 27 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The rate among women fell from 21 percent to 16 percent during the same decade.
Almayouf said Saudi smokers were becoming addicted more easily because the level of nicotine was not being properly monitored at customs.
“The individual becomes addicted to tobacco within a week of starting to smoke. In the past, it used to take him more than a month to become an addict,” he said.
“Doctors and specialists confirmed that nicotine levels have increased due to the lack of censorship and supervision by the authorities, in addition to the lax enforcement of the regulations imposed on tobacco companies in this regard.”
Last year, Niqaa blamed the Ministry of Finance for enabling the spread of smoking by refusing to increase taxes on tobacco imports. The ministry argued higher prices would only encourage a black market.