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Thu 1 Feb 2007 12:00 AM

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Tobacco suit sparks action

As Saudi Arabia calls it quits with global tobacco firms, UAE physicians herald the biggest crackdown on smoking to date

In the wake of the 12th Gulf Forum for Tobacco Control and Prevention, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made landmark announcements over plans to tighten tobacco controls and recoup the costs of smoking-related illnesses.

Saudi minister of health, Dr Hamad Al-Manie, warned the country intends to sue international tobacco firms unless they agree to pay the full costs of treating patients for tobacco-related conditions. The ministry has, Manie reported, already rejected an offer of compensation from the firms, although he declined to name the figure the government was seeking.

“I have met with representatives of tobacco companies, and informed them of the ministry’s plan to file a lawsuit,” Manie said. “They have to pay both the patients and the health ministry for the costs of treatment, else the lawsuit will go ahead.”

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the region, but follows in the footsteps of similar actions in the US and Canada. Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco and Altadis are among the tobacco firms rumoured to be named in the lawsuit.

In recent years, the Saudi government has accelerated anti-smoking legislation, banning smoking in government and state buildings, and prohibiting cigarette advertising in the local press or on television. However, Manie said, these efforts have failed to curb the rising number of smokers.

While falling short of legal action targeting tobacco firms, the UAE has also stepped up to tackle the issue of smoking, announcing that a draft law designed by the UAE’s Tobacco Control Committee will be put in place later this year.

The scope of the law is thought to include closer monitoring of advertising, higher prices for tobacco products, and enforcement of a smoking ban in public areas. It is hoped the steps will bring the UAE, as a signatory to the 2003 WHO-led Global Framework for Smoking Prevention, closer to meeting the treaty’s recommendations.

Dr Amin Mohammed, director of primary care in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE who attended the forum, applauded the government’s move to standardise tobacco control. Commenting on the law, he said: “A national body and tobacco control plan, separate from the Ministry of Health, but with a government-allocated budget, will be an enormous step forward in the control and prevention of tobacco-related illness.”

The incidence and cost of treating smoking-related illnesses has risen steadily in the UAE in recent years.

Despite this, government officials have brushed aside suggestions that the UAE will also sue to recoup the money spent on care. Dr Juma Bilal Fairouz, director of the department of disease control at the Ministry of Health, urged regional governments to focus instead on the issue of public health. “The government is here to protect the people but it must be courageous,” he said.

“If Saudi Arabia wants to address the issue of smoking-related diseases, going after the cigarette companies will not achieve this.

Pointing to high tobacco taxes in the UK and US, he added: “If you look at the UK government, it makes something like US $5 billion tax revenue from cigarettes, making them very expensive and discouraging people.

“Here in the Middle East we make it very easy and affordable to smoke. It’s an economic issue and we will only get to the bottom of it if we stop importing cigarettes.

“The government has the option to take measures.”

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