Every year since 1988 the month of May has concluded with a worldwide celebration of "No Tobacco Day", one of eight official global public health campaigns launched yearly by the World Health Organisation.
The UN office in Cairo seized this opportunity and convened on 16 June to shed light on various issues, one of which was the urgent need to raise tobacco prices in Egypt in order to curb the rapid rise in the number of smokers in the country while simultaneously increasing government revenue, both of which are dire urgencies.
Egypt lies in the eastern Mediterranean region, which, according to the WHO, has the second lowest average for cigarette prices worldwide and the third lowest imposed tax.
"A look at the experiences of other countries in the world leaves us without a shred of doubt that there is a direct correlation between increasing the price of tobacco products and an increase in government income," said Dr Fatima El-Awwa, WHO consultant.
The WHO estimates that if countries in the region raise tobacco prices by 50 percent, more than 785,000 tobacco-related deaths will be avoided yearly and the number of smokers will decrease by 3.5 million.
The regulations implemented in Egypt since 2008 have resulted in an increase in government income that exceeded predictions almost fiftyfold. It is also worth mentioning that a large percentage of price taxes on cigarettes in Egypt go directly to fund the medical insurances of students.
The Egyptian government imposed an increase on the price of cigarettes in 2008, which led to a confirmable improvement in reducing the number of smokers. Nevertheless, Egypt continues to register an exceedingly high rate of smokers in relation to countries worldwide, with the most conservative Health Ministry estimates pointing at 10 million smokers, with a yearly five percent increase.
El-Awwa stressed that import duties are not to be relied upon, since these become obsolete with the implementation of international trade agreements, as seen in various countries. The focus should instead be on increasing the price of the cigarette pack itself, or the taxes imposed, which should not be lower than 70 percent of the original price.
Since, according to the WHO, Egypt and Saudi Arabia consume 40 percent of worldwide waterpipe tobacco, El-Awwa added that such regulations should not be restricted to cigarettes alone but be equally imposed on all tobacco products.
Media effect on teens
The WHO consultant additionally said that although certain measures have been implemented in recent years to curtail smoking -- like banning tobacco-related advertisements and printing pictorial warnings on cigarette packs -- the government remains oblivious to the extensive effect of tobacco consumption shown in films and television shows.
"The negative effect of such an exposure is far beyond what we ever thought, and it is unfortunately so widespread in Egyptian media that some Egyptian series have been registered to display the use of tobacco more than 200 times," El-Awwa lamented, adding that "in Egypt, a very large percentage of people begin smoking before the age of 13."