Life expectancy in Syria has dropped by 30 percent since the start of the conflict there in 2011, with over 400,000 people dying violent deaths and countless others passing away before their time due to inadequate medical care in a country where hospitals have come to be considered a legitimate target for airstrikes. And the United Nations’ health agency says it is concerned—about shisha, the flavored tobacco smoked with a hookah.
“Notwithstanding the current crisis in the country,” reads a June 1 press release from the World Health Organization, the U.N. agency is stressing “the urgency for controlling tobacco and shisha consumption among the population—especially among youths, women and teenage school children.”
This urgent call was made by WHO’s representative to Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day 2016. “Many youths, women and school-age children in Syria have taken to shisha smoking believing that it is fashionable and less harmful than cigarettes,” Hof said. “The truth is that shisha smoking is 20 times more dangerous.”
Hoff, according to the press release, urged Syrian health authorities to enforce “plain packaging” for tobacco products, while Syria’s Deputy Minister of Health, Ahmad Khlefawy, noted that his government has endorsed a ban on public smoking and “will continue to discourage tobacco consumption—including shisha.”
The government’s commitment to protect Syrians from tobacco, if not their government, came at an event hosted by the United Nations which, according to WHO, “featured presentations of poems, essays, and cartoon drawing by youths and school children to reflect the harmful effect of tobacco consumption.”
According to the monitoring group Siege Watch, “there are over 1 million people currently suffering under siege in Syria,” with most of them besieged by allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose security forces helped kickstart the destruction of the country by torturing and killing those, including children, who expressed opposition to the regime by way of poems, essays and cartoons. On the same day WHO issued its press release, the Syrian government allowed an aid shipment to enter the Damascus suburb of Darayya for the first time since 2012. It contained medicine, baby milk and vaccines, with food “excluded from the convoy as a confidence-building measure,” according to The Guardian.
While the United Nations has been unable to obtain Syrian government consent for airdrops to other besieged communities, the international community can take solace in one fact: the food-less aid convoy also excluded tobacco, meaning that the residents of Darayya and other besieged communities are more likely to die of starvation than shisha.