In the absence of a federal ban on smoking in public places, individual emirates have introduced their own rules, leading to a somewhat disjointed approach to the problem of tobacco use.
Since 2007, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah and Dubai have introduced partial or full smoking bans.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi and Umm al Qaiwain are waiting for federal legislation to be passed.
The most recent draft, which went before the Federal National Council in February, included rules governing tobacco advertising, tobacco production and smoking in public. The law is still being amended by the Ministry of Health.
The efforts to reduce the number of smoke-friendly public places and boost education drives has not been completely hampered by the lack of a federal decree.
Sharjah Municipality outlawed smoking in public last year and introduced a strict fining system to ensure the rules were followed.
A spokesperson for the municipality said if individuals were caught smoking in malls, restaurants, cafes, public toilets, salons and other public spaces they could be fined Dh1,000 (US$270). Businesses that allow people to smoke in banned areas could be fined up to Dh20,000.
Neighbouring Ajman was the first of the northern emirates to prohibit smoking in public. Those laws were introduced in July 2007 and, according to officials, have been a success.
Rashid al Suwaidi, head of the inspection section at the municipality, said it had issued a circular to all the shopping centres and would follow up on violations.
“We have not found many violators. The good thing in this country is that people are always abiding by the rules set by authorities,” he said. Ajman also set up two government stop-smoking centres, one at the Sheikh Khalifa Hospital and the other in the Humaidiya district.
In October 2008, the municipality in Ras al Khaimah banned smoking in all enclosed public areas. Businesses were warned they could be temporarily shut down or fined more than Dh5,000 if they did not abide by the law.
However, the municipality now says no such ban exists and the rules apply only to certain areas such as food courts in malls. Businesses face a Dh500 fine for violations but no financial penalty exists for people who smoke in government offices, according to the municipality.
“If you take the initiative it’s very difficult to enforce,” said Benoy Kurien, the general manager of Manar Mall. “It took almost six to eight months to stop people from smoking in the food court. As a next step we are going to ban smoking by the shop staff.”
Mr Kurien said the mall management had never been informed of any smoking bans by the municipality and took the decision itself.
Dr Nasir Ali, a public health specialist at the RAK Smoking Cessation Centre, said new regulations were useless if they were not enforced. “Lots of people want to stop but until now there are no punishments regarding people who smoke in offices,” he said.
In May last year Fujairah banned smoking in all closed public areas and warned of Dh500 fines. This policy remains, but as with the rest of the UAE, could benefit from tighter legislation.
Dubai is arguably the strictest of all seven emirates when it comes to smoking. Opting for more of a stick than a carrot approach, Dubai Municipality used tough enforcement in May 2008 to encourage people to accept a ban.
“Usually at the beginning you need to be tough on the enforcement, but after that it becomes a habit where people see a change between the polluted and non-polluted and it becomes easier for them to abide by it,” said Redha Salman, director of public health and safety at the municipality.
Mr Salman hailed the smoking ban as a continuing success, largely due to the phasing-out methods they adopted. Already phase one, which involved targeting indoor populated areas such as hotels and shopping malls, has been completed.
Currently Dubai is working its way through phase two, which includes coffee shops, restaurants, and other areas such as beaches and parks.
“There are four phases in total, and we are still in the second phase,” Mr Salman said, declining to disclose the details of the next two stages.
Fouad Sharaf, the vice president of Mall of the Emirates, said it had worked successfully with the municipality to make the ban work. During the first few weeks there were between 40 and 50 violations but this has been reduced to next to nothing, he said.
“I would say that most of the people got the message clearly.”
Abu Dhabi and Umm al Qaiwain have yet to introduce any sort of emirate-wide ban.
Umm al Qaiwain health officials cite different reasons for the lack of any rules or regulations. They said it does not cause a problem and that a law may be introduced in the future. It would, of course, follow any federal guidelines when and if they were introduced, they said.
Salma Saleh, the head of health education at the emirate’s medical zone said smoking was an “established habit” and most people refrained in places such as malls.
Dr Mariam al Yousef, a member of the government committee charged with drafting Abu Dhabi’s smoking ban, said the emirate was waiting for the federal law. “When I did compare the proposal of the federal law and our proposal at the local emirate, I found that it was almost 99 per cent identical,” she added.
By Mitya Underwood
November 30. 2009