Several top medical officials from across the Gulf meeting in Doha this week are calling for new regulations to curb the use of shisha usage in the region, including outlawing smoking in public places.
Tawfik A.M. Khoja, the director-general of the GCC Health Ministers’ executive board, suggested to the Gulf Times that such a ban would reduce the social appeal of using shisha.
“Users tend to smoke with friends in cafes and other public places,” he said. “There should be policies banning the use of shisha in public places, which may help prevent and reduce shisha smoking.”
Such a move made be a tough sell in Qatar, where smoking shisha is a popular pastime and past restrictions have been met with resistance.
Late last year for example, managers of Souq Waqif implemented and then quickly withdrew rules that forced restaurants and cafes to set aside half of outdoor seating areas for non-smoking customers.
Managers of such establishments complained that the new rules didn’t make sense, as there would be queues of people waiting to smoke shisha while tables in the non-smoking sat empty.
Warning signs urged
In addition to calling for a public smoking ban, the GCC health professionals participating in the International Conference on Waterpipe Smoking discussed ways of reducing the appeal of shisha smoking.
That includes a GCC-wide ban on showing shisha use on TV programs, where it is often glamorized as a way of reducing stress, Khoja was quoted as saying.
“The extensive use of shisha in television programmes such as dramas and serials has a great impact among youngsters. Such indirect promotion of shisha is very common,” he said.
It’s not clear how such restrictions would work in a country such as Qatar, where most television shows are produced in other countries. According to the World Health Organization, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates already have indirect bans in place on showing tobacco products on TV and/or in films.
Additionally, doctors want smokers to be more aware of the ill effects shisha use has on the body by forcing cafes to post signs warning patrons of the health risks of using a hookah.
Since 2012, GCC countries have required graphic warning labels to be displayed on cigarette and shisha packages – something tobacco companies attempted to pressure Qatar authorities into removing due to their apparent effectiveness in deterring customers.
10 times worse than cigarettes
However, Dr. Ahmed Mohamed Al Mulla, head of the smoking cessation clinic at Hamad Medical Corp. (HMC), said many smokers still have the mistaken belief that shisha carries fewer health risks than cigarettes.
While he told The Peninsula that he favors an indoor smoking ban, he also said that more research is needed on the health effects of shisha:
“Many people think shisha is less dangerous. But it can be 10 times (more) harmful than cigarettes. We need to do more research to prove that it’s harmful and put more policies in place to control shisha smoking,” he said.
Last month, HMC doctors announced a study on the specific health impact of shisha smoking on local residents. Specifically, researchers wanted to learn how the popular regional pastime affects heart, blood vessels and the respiratory system of daily shisha users who have never smoked cigarettes.
Specific statistics on the prevalence of shisha use in Qatar are not kept, although local health officials say that 37 percent of local residents above the age of 15 smoke some form of tobacco.