By FAZEENA SALEEM and MOHAMED OSMAN
DOHA: Fresh calls are being made to curb the use of chewing tobacco by schoolchildren.
Use of chewing or smokeless tobacco by schoolchildren has been identified as a major problem in Qatar.
Several sociologists and educationists have urged the authorities to take firm action against those who bring and sell chewing tobacco, commonly known as ‘sweka’ in the Gulf region, in the country.
Some have also said that parents should be more vigilant about children picking up such a habit.
Use of ‘sweka’ can lead to diseases of the mouth and jaw and, in some cases, cancer of the mouth or throat. Studies show that smokeless tobacco may also play a role in causing other cancers, heart disease and stroke.
Smokeless tobacco contains more nicotine than cigarettes. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that makes it hard to stop using tobacco once someone starts. But despite its harmful effects, the tobacco is used by many citizens.
Experts say that use of tobacco increases with the start of the academic year in high schools and there is a need to introduce punishment and fines to stop its use by youngsters.
There has been a steady increase in the number of youngsters, particularly high school students, who are addicted to tobacco in various forms, of which ‘sweka’ is the most popular.
The results of a survey suggest that some 15 percent of preparatory and secondary school students in Qatar use ‘sweka’, which is easily available in the local market.
Some students are addicted to both, smoking and chewing tobacco, the survey found.
According to the World Health Organisation’s Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2013, seven percent of Qataris between the ages of 18 and 64 years use smokeless tobacco. The habit prevails among 7.6 percent of the men and 6.1 percent of the women.
Dr Muneera Al Rumaihi, a sociologist, suggests that it is the responsibility of parents to monitor and prevent children from acquiring habits like chewing tobacco.
Khalid Al Suwaidi, a Qatari national, said that wide availability of ‘sweka’ was giving easy access to students.
“The problem is it is easy to get ‘sweka’; it is cheap and easy to hide, and people don’t show it in their behaviour, that’s why it is widely used among students. Parents should take responsibility for preventing their children from acquiring such habits,” he said.
In a recent report, Al Arab newspaper said that ‘sweka’ was sold in the old neighbourhoods of Doha. Many ‘sweka’ sellers can be seen along the byroads of Old Ghanim and near the National Library roundabout.
As soon as their customers arrive, the sellers quickly appear to deliver the ‘sweka’ and then vanish. It all happens very quickly. Some of the customers come in luxury cars.
A ‘sweka’ seller who spoke on condition of anonymity said that there were many distribution points for the tobacco, but he was unaware of how it was brought into the country.
“It is not kept and sold at one place, but at different locations. I’m simply a distributor, I don’t know how it is coming here. I too use it, but I don’t know if it is something bad for health,” he said.
An 18-year-old said that he started using ‘sweka’ in school, just to get a taste of it, but later became addicted to it.
“I can’t stay without it for more than three hours. When I hear that police have caught ‘sweka’ sellers I become nervous, although I know that there are several ways to get ‘sweka’,” he said.
There are many youth in Qatar similarly addicted to ‘sweka’, but there is no data on the number of ‘sweka’ users in the country.
Some findings suggest that six out of 10 students in high school use ‘sweka’. In middle school, four out of 10 students are addicted to the habit.
A study conducted in 2012 by Social Rehabilitation Centre and the Research and Policy Analysis Centre of the Supreme Education Council, the regulator of schools, found that at least 78 percent of the chewing tobacco users were Qatari students and their average age was 17.
Many of the students had been using chewing tobacco since the age of 14. Most of the addicted Qatari students hailed from well-off families enjoying a high social status and their parents were educated, some of them highly educated.
Use of ‘sweka’ increases during examinations as students find the tobacco a stress-buster, says the study. Schools where use of chewing tobacco is more common are located mainly in Al Wakra, Al Rayyan, Al Shahaniya and Al Muaither. Neighbourhood stores in these areas sell ‘sweka’ on the sly, says the study report, urging the authorities to launch a crackdown on the shady operators.
“What we need is a law to ban ‘sweka’, and more importantly, to raise public awareness against its use,” the study suggests.
The study found that the majority of students know about ‘sweka’ and can get it easily from friends and associates whenever they want.
The study found that ‘sweka’ sellers are more active on byroads and in crowded paces. It also says that some teenagers get ‘sweka’ from their friends.
The study covered 2,073 students in middle and high schools. Among them, 306 were using ‘sweka’. They represented 19 percent of all the respondents. Their average age was 17 and some of them had started using ‘sweka’ before the age of 14.
Many said that they got ‘sweka’ easily at a low price. Some had tried chewing ‘sweka’ out of curiosity and later became addicted. Many of them were introduced to ‘sweka’ by friends.
Education expert Abdul Aziz Al Mulla said, “The government is doing its best to stop the trading and sale of ‘sweka’ in the country, yet the issue needs to be taken more seriously. There should be strict monitoring at entry points to the country. A new law against ‘sweka’ should be implemented with tough punishments for violators.”
“Schools should closely monitor students who use ‘sweka’, and advise them and take action against them,” he added.
Some suggested that family members and parents could do more than the authorities to control the use of ‘sweka’ by teenagers.
Dr Abu Neera said, “Parents can play a major role in preventing their young children using ‘sweka’. But it will not rule out implementing strict action against those who sell ‘sweka’, as there is a danger of them mixing more harmful things like drugs with ‘sweka’.”
Tariq bin Saief Al Maliki, a CMC member, too suggested that strict action be taken against those selling ‘sweka’.
“There should be more intensified monitoring of places where ‘sweka’ is sold. If the availability is limited, it will not reach teenagers, or else there is a risk of the habit spreading among the community beyond control.”
School administrations, he added too should take this problem seriously and find ways to identify students addicted to ‘sweka’.
Statistics show that 60 percent of ‘sweka’ users are between the ages of 12 and 18, with a small number of them being female. There is great concern in Qatari society about females using ‘sweka’.
Abdul Aziz Abdullah, an educationist, said: “Addiction to ‘sweka’ is not limited to youth and men; the habit is seen among females as well.”
Khlaid Al Suwaidi, a former school operator, said, “We urge introducing ways to stop and prevent female students from using ‘sweka’.