Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic

Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic
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With 9,000 people dying each year in the country due to smoking-related health complications, the issue has to become top priority. (AFP)
Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic
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Smoking a traditional water pipe is popular in Jordan’s cafes, above and below, and also on the beach in the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea. (AFP)
Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic
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Jordanians swell their time away at a smoking joint. (Supplied)
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Updated 06 July 2020

Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic

Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic
  • On July 1, the kingdom extended a ban on all forms of smoking in closed public spaces citing the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Cheap cigarettes, ineffective laws and tobacco lobbies have helped Jordan grab global top spot for smoking rates

AMMAN: Zeina, a 32-year-old Jordanian national, is very particular about protecting herself in the COVID-19 era. She washes her hands regularly, wears a face mask and observes social distancing.

But as she sat with her friends in an upscale shisha cafe in Amman’s Abdoun neighborhood on a recent evening, she was unaware of the fact that she was inhaling 6,000 chemicals every time she drew flavored tobacco smoke through water.

“I tried to kick the habit many times, but meeting friends at cafes forced me to return to it,” Zeina told Arab News. That aspect of her social life has just come to a stop.

On July 1, Jordan extended a ban on all forms of smoking in closed public spaces, citing the fight against the pandemic.

“In order to protect the health and safety of citizens, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, smoking of all forms (cigarettes, e-cigarettes and shisha) is banned in all closed public spaces,” the Health Ministry said.

 

 

On June 23, London-based newspaper The Guardian published results of a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Jordan’s Health Ministry that said the kingdom had surpassed Indonesia to have the highest smoking rates in the world.

The study showed that more than eight out of 10 Jordanian men smoke or regularly use nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, and that 66 percent of Jordanian men and more than 17 percent of Jordanian women are smokers.

The Department of General Statistics revealed that by the end of the first quarter of 2020, the total spend on smoking reached 1.6 billion Jordanian dinars ($2.26 billion) — about 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — with every Jordanian spending on average 115 dinars on cigarettes per year.

Mohammad Shreem, director of Jordan’s Anti-Smoker’s Society, said when it researched the cost ratio of smoking, it concluded that for every dinar earned as revenue from cigarette sales tax, Jordan spends 12 times as much on treating smoking-related diseases.

The country annually loses 4 billion dinars in medical expenses, and 95 percent of people with lung cancer are smokers, he said, adding: “Their absence also hurts the economy because it lowers productivity.”

On the social level, it is easy to see how popular smoking is in the country. Ads target the Jordanian public across all platforms, including social media.




Jordanians swell their time away at a smoking joint. (Supplied)

One of them reads: “Smoke the argileh (water pipe) while driving or have it ordered to your house. Comes ready with red hot coals. Only for $10.”

Jordan has had a ban on smoking cigarettes in public places since 2008, but it was not forcefully implemented.

Before the latest ban that now covers e-cigarettes and shisha, many Jordanians were unaware that smoking in public places is a criminal offense that comes with a fine of 100 dinars and up to a month’s imprisonment.

Ayman, a resident of Amman’s Al-Weibdeh neighborhood, has been smoking for three years because everyone around him is a smoker.

Is he aware of the 2008 law? “I’ve never heard of it and no one is implementing it,” he told Arab News.

There was a reason for the lack of implementation over the years, said economic expert Mazen Marji.

“The Jordanian government has a stake in the widespread habit of smoking because it profits even more from it than do cigarette companies. It collects 75 percent taxes on cigarettes, which amounts to 1 billion dinars,” he told Arab News.

Many Jordanians put aside money to buy cigarettes, often at the expense of their food budget, and while these may be personal compulsions, “the government takes the responsibility for not implementing the law on smoking in public places,” he said.

Muwafiq Malkawi, a columnist for the daily Al-Ghad newspaper, concurs with Marji on the government’s responsibility.

“We criticize citizens on their lack of awareness (of the dangers of smoking) but let us first look at the faulty government policies on tobacco,” Malkawi wrote in one of his columns.

“This has become a powerful industry, especially because it brings to the government coffers JD 1 billion ($1.4 billion) a year. Cigarette companies are a powerful lobby around the world, and they impact governmental decision-making.”

Cigarettes lobbies, however, are not the only forces at work in Jordan to prevent smoking from losing popularity.

IN NUMBERS

  • 6%  Share of Jordan’s GDP spent on smoking in 2019.
  • 9,000 Annual deaths blamed on smoking-related complications.
  • $2.26 billion Total spend on smoking in 2019.

In 2014, the Health Ministry made valiant attempts to enforce the public health law and stop the use of shisha in cafes, but the pushback from cafe owners and investors proved to be too strong.

Eventually a compromise was reached, with a health warning stuck on premises that goes largely unnoticed by the public.

When Arab News spoke to a cross-section of Jordanians on why anti-smoking campaigns fail, they attributed it predominantly to the absence of rigorous implementation of the law, with community pressure and the low price of cigarettes following close behind.

“In Jordan, prices are low and so everyone can buy cigarettes without making a dent in their budget. This is a huge factor that encourages smoking,” said Malkawi.

Marji pointed to the possibility of an increase in smuggling if the cost of cigarettes goes up. “The government will have to fight that as well,” he said.

Shreem pointed to the high mortality rate from smoking-related diseases. “Eight million people die every year worldwide from diseases related to smoking. This is a much higher figure than the rate of fatalities due to the coronavirus until now, yet smoking is still to be listed as a pandemic in the Arab world,” he said.




Smoking a traditional water pipe is popular in Jordan’s cafes, above and below, and also on the beach in the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea. (AFP)

Princess Dina Mired, a Jordanian humanitarian and health activist, has spoken on this issue, pointing to smoking’s high cost to public health.

Thanks to lax implementation of the law on smoking, six global companies are spending a lot of money to entice the young to smoke, she said. She welcomed the July 1 ban, and expressed hope that it will be properly implemented.

Firas Al-Hawari, head of the lung unit and the intensive care unit at the King Hussein Cancer Center, told Arab News: “We’re at war with smoking, which is reaching children and adolescents. The problem is getting worse due to e-cigarettes.”

Referring to Jordan’s non-implementation of the WHO’s 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which asserts the importance of demand-reduction strategies as well as supply issues, Al-Hawari did not mince words.

“The smoking averages in Jordan are a warning that we are approaching a pandemic of non-communicable diseases," he said.

“With 9,000 people dying every year in the country due to smoking-related health complications, the issue has to become top priority.”

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@daoudkuttab

Field research by Mohammad Ersan; video filming by Mohammad Abu Hijah and Mohammad Shannak


UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines

UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines
Updated 21 April 2021

UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines

UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines
  • The UAE reports 1,903 new coronavirus cases and three fatalities
  • Abu Dhabi earlier approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

DUBAI: The UAE is considering imposing movement restrictions on individuals who remain hesitant to have themselves vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Dr. Saif Al-Dhaheri, spokesman for the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority.

“The vaccine is our best means to recover and return to a normal life … Delaying or refraining from taking the vaccine poses a threat to the safety of society and puts all groups, especially those most vulnerable to infection, at risk,” Dr. Al-Dhaheri said in reports from local media.

“Strict measures are being considered to restrict the movement of unvaccinated individuals and to implement preventive measures, such as restricting entry to some places and having access to some services, to ensure the health and safety of everyone,” he added, as he urged residents aged 16 and above to get vaccinated.

The UAE reported 1,903 new coronavirus cases and three fatalities related to the highly transmissible disease overnight, amid the government’s continued inoculation program for citizens and residents.

The country’s COVID-19 caseload now stands at 500,860 while total fatality count is at 1,559, a report from state news agency WAM said.

Health officials said that 113,621 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the past 24 hours, bringing the number of jabs given provided to 9,788,826 for a distribution rate of 98.97 doses per 100 people.

Abu Dhabi earlier approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the second COVID-19 shot to be made available in the emirate after beginning a mass campaign using the Sinopharm vaccine that was trialed in the country.

Pfizer obtained emergency approval in the UAE in December and Dubai rolled out the vaccine during that month.


Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process

Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process
Updated 21 April 2021

Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process

Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process
  • Arab League, African Union, EU and UN call for accelerated efforts to improve security and fully implement ceasefire
  • UN chief Antonio Guterres says urgent and immediate action is needed or window of opportunity might be lost

The international Libya Quartet on Tuesday urged authorities in the country to step up their efforts to improve the security situation and build confidence, to help bring peace to the country and fully implement the ceasefire agreement.
The members of the Quartet — the League of Arab States, the African Union (AU), the EU and the UN — said they are ready to help with the 5+5 Joint Military Commission’s plans for a “robust, credible and effective” ceasefire monitoring mechanism.
On Friday the UN Security Council unanimously voted to send up to 60 international monitors to Libya to oversee the ceasefire, which was agreed in October between the two rival factions in the East and West of the country. Operational and logistical preparations for the mission are under way.
Speaking at the sixth meeting of the Libya Quartet, which was convened on Tuesday by the League of Arab States, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the monitoring team will initially be a “nimble” presence in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, but expand over time.
He also made it clear that after years of violence and suffering there is a window of opportunity for peace “but urgent and immediate actions are needed to make use of this narrow window.”
In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the Quartet members called for the “immediate and unconditional” withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from the country as a prerequisite for fully restoring Libyan sovereignty and preserving national unity.
They also condemned continual violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, and the threat posed by armed groups and militias. They called for “the sustained implementation of measures to fully identify and dismantle these groups, and ensure the subsequent reintegration of those individuals meeting the requirements into national institutions as outlined in the ceasefire agreement … without delay.”
The meeting also included discussion of the possible deployment of AU, EU and Arab League observer missions, “at the request of Libya’s authorities, and if the requisite conditions on the ground permit,” to assist the National Elections Commission in its preparations for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
The importance of the elections taking place in “a favorable political and security environment, so that they are held in an inclusive, transparent and credible manner and where all Libyans commit to respect their results and integrity” was emphasized.
Participants also encouraged Libya’s new Government of National Unity, and other relevant institutions, to uphold their commitment to appoint women to at least 30 percent of senior executive positions, and to promote a national, rights-based reconciliation across the country.


Yemen launches first round of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
Updated 21 April 2021

Yemen launches first round of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
  • The 12-day campaign was launched in the temporary capital Aden and 13 Yemeni governorates
  • The campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts

RIYADH: Yemen launched the first round of its COVID-19 inoculation campaign on Tuesday in the temporary capital, Aden.
The campaign is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief).
Yemeni Minister of Public Health and Population Qasim Buhaibeh, Minister of Civil Service and Insurance Abdul Nasser Al-Wali, Governor of Aden Ahmed Hamed Lamlas, Yemen’s representative for UNICEF Philippe Duamelle, and director of the WHO office in Aden Noha Mahmoud all received the vaccine in a show of support, Saba News Agency reported.
Yemen received 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 31, part of a consignment from COVAX expected to total 1.9 million doses this year.
Buhaibeh said this was the first step toward reaching the ministry’s goal of administering 12 million vaccines by the end of the year, urging doctors, the elderly and those with chronic diseases to register to receive the jab.
Duamelle said frontline workers, the elderly and those with certain health problems would be prioritized.
“The launch of the campaign against the coronavirus is an important day in Yemen’s history,” he said, adding that the health minister and other ministers have taken the vaccination confirming its safety.
The 12-day campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts across 13 Yemeni governorates under the control of the internationally recognized government.
There has been a dramatic spike in coronavirus infections in Yemen since mid-February, further straining a health system battered by the conflict.
The government’s health ministry has previously said the COVAX vaccines will be free, and distributed across the country. COVAX is co-led by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance and the WHO to provide COVID vaccines to low-income countries.
Tuesday’s rollout covered only government-held parts of the country, said Ishraq Al-Seba’ei who is with the government’s emergency coronavirus committee. But she said 10,000 doses were being sent to Sanaa via the WHO.
Yemen’s emergency coronavirus committee registered 42 confirmed cases and six deaths on Tuesday. It has recorded 5,858 coronavirus infections and 1,132 deaths so far though the true figure is widely thought to be much higher as the war has restricted COVID-19 testing.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia, which controls the capital Sanaa and much of the north have provided no figures since a couple of cases last May.
Meanwhile, KSrelief said it has provided support for protection projects within Saudi Arabia’s grant for the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2020. 
The center cooperated with UNICEF to provide protection services by enabling children and their families to access psychosocial support and mental health services, totaling $4 million.
(With Reuters)


Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 21 April 2021

Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Natanz nuclear plant sabotage lays bare vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of own population
  • Analysts say Tehran’s tepid response is a sign of its desperation for sanctions relief above all else

LONDON: Analysts have said that the blast that struck Iran’s most critical nuclear facility on April 11 is another significant event in a decades-long shadow war between Tehran and its regional adversary Israel.

They say the sabotage has not only exposed Iran’s vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of its own population, but its tepid response has revealed its desperation for sanctions relief above all else.

Unnamed intelligence officials from Mossad told Israeli media and the New York Times last week that the mysterious Natanz explosion was their handiwork. And, according to Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, it is a continuation of the spate of blasts, blackouts, and fires that swept across the Islamic Republic last year — but with one major difference.

“What has changed from last year is how public it is. (Israel) is ready to take responsibility. From a shadow war it has moved to the forefront,” Mekelberg told Arab News.

“This confrontation has been taking place for two decades now, at least. Cyberattacks, assassinations of scientists, attacks on ships — this is something that is ongoing. What you have seen in the last year or so is that it is becoming open, from covert to overt.”

In the past year alone, Iran has been rocked by a relentless series of attacks, assassinations, and sabotages. The country’s top nuclear scientist was killed in a sophisticated attack.

Their entire nuclear archives were stolen and smuggled out of the country, and nuclear, military, and logistics sites across the country have suffered from a series of mysterious setbacks.

An image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on April 17, 2021 shows the portrait of a man identified as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week's "sabotage" on the Natanz nuclear facility. (AFP/File Photo)

According to Mekelberg, these incidents have not only hindered Iran’s economy and nuclear program, but also exposed a fundamental weakness in the regime.

“They have a real issue inside their nuclear program,” he said. “The idea that their top scientist, they couldn’t protect him, and that someone managed to take your nuclear archives out of the country — that is not something you can simply put in your pocket.”

Iranian state television named 43-year-old Iranian national Reza Karimi as the prime suspect in the April sabotage — but said he had already fled the country in the hours before the blast occurred.

Mekelberg and other experts believe the involvement of an Iranian national is indicative of the regime’s core vulnerability: Turncoats within its population, and even within the nuclear program itself.

INNUMBERS

Iranian oil

* $40 - Price per barrel of oil used in Iran’s budget calculations.

* 300,000 - Estimated oil exports in barrels per day (bpd) in 2020.

* 2.8m - Iranian oil exports in bpd in 2018.

“They have a real issue with security. I assume that the more things like this happen, the more paranoid they become about who they can trust, who is working with foreign agencies. Obviously, someone is,” Mekelberg said.

Olli Heinonen, a non-proliferation expert and distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, believes the sophistication of the Natanz attack means there is little doubt that local collaborators from within the regime enabled it.

“Those who have designed and executed these actions have insider information and highly likely local contributors,” Heinonen told Arab News.

This handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on January 8, 2020 shows an overview of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran. (AFP/Maxar/File Photo)

Like Mekelberg, Heinonen highlighted Iran’s apparent ineptitude in defending even its most critical nuclear facilities and pointed to the stark contrast between the country’s record and another global pariah state’s nuclear program.

“It is worth noting that we have not heard about similar incidents in North Korea,” he said. “It is evident that the (Iranian) security forces have not been able to protect the assets as the leadership had expected.

“This does not come as a surprise. Not all Iranians, including technical professionals, buy the reasonability of the enrichment efforts, the investments for which could be used better elsewhere, even within the nuclear program.”

Tehran has admitted that the attacks caused serious damage at the Natanz facility. Last week, Alireza Zakani, a regime hardliner who heads the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in an interview on state television.

A handout picture released by the official website of Iran's Revolutionary Guard on August 25, 2014, shows an alleged Israeli drone that was shot down above the Natanz uranium enrichment site. (AFP/File Photo)

“From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee said. “They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

Heinonen said the attacks have “certainly slowed production” of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is above the enrichment level needed for nuclear power, but far below the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium.

However, he cautioned that production could begin to ramp up again within three months of the attack, and Tehran’s promise to begin enriching uranium to 60 percent in response to the attack could act as a springboard toward rapid development of a nuclear bomb.

“In a short term (60 percent enrichment) does not contribute much to breakout time, but it demonstrates the fact that uranium enrichment is mainly designed to build a nuclear latency; to be in a position to relaunch in short interval a full nuclear weapon acquisition program, if such a decision is made,” he said.

The response to the attacks is part of a delicate balancing act by Tehran, according to Nader Di Michele, an Iran-focused analyst at political risk consultancy Prelia.

This handout powerpoint slide provided by U.S. Central Command damage shows an explosion (L) and a likely limpet mine can be seen on the hull of the civilian vessel M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“They do not want escalations but the government has to show a response in terms of its foreign policy. That could be aimed at international actors or even its domestic population,” he told Arab News.

Beyond increasing uranium enrichment, it was reported that unknown actors targeted an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the following days. However, Di Michele thinks the damage caused by that attack was, by design, minimal compared with the devastation caused by the Natanz attack.

“There always has to be a response to these attacks, but I think the Iranian delegation understands that there is a limit to what they can do if they want sanctions relief.”

Di Michele said if the ongoing negotiations in Vienna prompt a lifting of sanctions and release of various assets that, in turn, deliver a financial boost to the regime, “we can never be sure what proportion of that would go to support which activities.”

He added: “It can be assumed that a proportion of those assets released would go toward foreign policy activities. What those entail, I couldn’t speculate on.”

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Twitter: @CHamillStewart


Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data
Updated 21 April 2021

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data
  • Turkey registered its highest daily toll of 346 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday
  • Total cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613

ISTANBUL: Turkey recorded 346 deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Tuesday, registering the highest daily death toll since the beginning of the pandemic.
The data also showed the country recorded 61,028 new coronavirus cases in the same period.
The total number of cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613, according to the data.
Turkey currently ranks fourth globally in the number of daily cases based on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.