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Tobacco use is a social problem and controlling it requires real change in social beliefs and norms. One thing that has worked successfully in this regard throughout the centuries in countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region is religion. Thus, whenever possible, a religious message should be activated at all different levels.
Under a plan of action developed in the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO), the fatwa (religious edict) on smoking, issued by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, was summarised and the summary approved by the Grand Mufti himself as well as the national authority concerned. Eighty thousand posters of the summarised ruling were prepared and distributed all over Egypt within five days during the month of Ramadan.
Of these 80 000 posters, 53 000 were distributed to mosques. The poster was also placed in main squares and streets, and Egypt’s Minister of Health and Population decided to have it displayed in all public hospitals.
EMRO staff also met the Pope of the Coptic Church, after which he requested a bishop to write on the Christian view on smoking (http://www.emro.who.int/tfi/EMROleads-christianview.htm). This was translated into English and posted on the TFI/EMRO website in connection with the 2001 WNTD.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia is one of EMRO’s key member states that has exerted tremendous efforts, particularly during the last pilgrimage season (2003), in activating and promoting the religious message in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In February 2003, billboards carrying anti-smoking messages were posted all around Mecca. Posters, brochures, pamphlets, and stickers were also handed out to three million pilgrims, in six different languages.
Similar activities were also adopted in Medina; 500 000 brochures and pamphlets were distributed as well as 5000 posters and 5000 tapes. Moreover, retailers are required to post anti-smoking messages and health warnings on the front windows of their shops; licences are neither being given nor renewed to tobacco agents, whose operations have now been moved to the outskirts of Medina; 20 restaurants, cafés, and similar establishments were closed during the morning hours, to prohibit them from selling shisha (tobacco mixed with molasses and fruit flavours) to students; anti-smoking committees were formed in various localities to spread the tobacco control message; and due to cultural sensitivities, a committee of women was also formed to carry the message of tobacco control to women.
These awareness campaigns in Medina led to more than 3000 men and 1600 women calling in, requesting information on smoking related issues. In addition, 200 retailers have stopped selling tobacco products. In Mecca and Medina, both smoking and the sale of cigarettes have been prohibited within a certain radius of the holy mosques as well as near schools. In addition, no form of tobacco advertising is now permitted around these holy zones.