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November 2005
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A Tobacco-Free Madinah
By Adil Salahi

A vision may be born suddenly, but it could take off and find sincere people working for it.

A vision may be born suddenly, but it could take off and find sincere people working for it. In a discussion between the man responsible for the tobacco-free initiative at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean and the Saudi Ministry of Health official responsible for the Smoking or Health program, the idea was born. The man from WHO asked: Why not make Makkah and Madinah cities where tobacco smoking is banned? The Saudi official said that the idea had occurred to him in a vague sense, but required some thinking on how it should be pursued. The WHO official said: “You have here a captive audience, who want to do the best that is acceptable from the Islamic point of view. If you put up posters everywhere in Makkah and Madinah in all languages of the Muslim pilgrims, drawing attention to the harmful effects of smoking and you ban the sale of tobacco in the two cities, you will have a most effective program. Pilgrims who are smokers will seriously think about quitting, if they do not immediately quit. Their non-smoker companions will give maximum encouragement. All pilgrims will go back home and speak about the fact, and people will listen attentively. The good work will spread and soon the two cities will be in the forefront of the worldwide campaign to combat tobacco smoking.”

A few weeks later, the WHO official was looking at a new move started by his counterpart at WHO Headquarters in Geneva, requesting nomination of cities, towns or villages that could lead the way in getting rid of the tobacco addiction among their populations. He immediately responded that the first two from the Eastern Mediterranean Region must be Makkah and Madinah. That official was due for retirement after a short while and did not see his initiative taking effect. It was left to his successor, Dr Faimah Al-Awa to pursue it with diligent commitment. Less than two years later, a decision was taken to initiate necessary action to make the two cities tobacco-free. Today, the Prophet’s (Pbuh) city, Madinah leads the way towards the achievement of the goal of making a whole city, with all its places and districts, tobacco-free.

To give credit where it is due, we must say that it is local effort that has placed Madinah in this leading position. WHO could give support and help in the development of plans, but it is at the local level that efforts should be made and plans carried out. Hence, the efforts of the Charitable Organization to combat smoking in Madinah earn all praise. Moreover, the support given by Prince Miqrin, the governor of Madinah, has been instrumental in putting in place regulations and laws that aim to make this noble initiative a success. A former smoker himself, Prince Miqrin is convinced that tobacco is the top preventable cause of ill health. As the Islamic perspective makes it a government duty to ensure that all that is good for people is done and whatever causes harm is prevented, the prince believes that combating tobacco smoking must be seen as a major part of health protection and promotion plans in the Prophet’s (Pbuh) city. Thus, cooperation between the Charitable Organization and the Governor’s Office has been easy and efforts by the organisation were backed by the necessary regulations.

Planning was most important in achieving gradual, but steady and progressive results. A three-pronged program was devised which aims to 1) take necessary action to reduce tobacco availability and consumption in Madinah; 2) increase people’s awareness of the health risks that tobacco smoking represents and help them to make an informed decision to quit smoking; and 3) ensure that children and youth should have the proper attitude to tobacco smoking. These mutually complementary aspects of the program aim to achieve practical results on two levels: Reducing tobacco smoking among smokers and helping as many of them as possible to quit; and also counter the efforts of tobacco companies to recruit new smokers from among adolescents and teenagers. Both goals are extremely important. Reducing tobacco consumption among those who are already addicted to smoking is no easy task, but it must remain a main area of activity. A smoker’s health will begin to improve immediately on quitting, and the health risks that such a smoker is exposed to will begin to retreat shortly afterwards. Hence, prevention is most effective in this way. On the other hand, it is normally in childhood and adolescence that most smokers take up the habit. To ensure that this does not happen, a continuous program of health education is necessary.

Thus the work was mapped out and it remained that efforts be exerted to put it into effect. We will be looking at such efforts and how they have progressed in this most commendable effort that aims to make the Prophet’s (Pbuh) city the first tobacco-free city in the world.