Translation from Arabic as published in the press:
HE Dr. H.A. Hajar Albinali, Minister of Health, welcome speech to the GCC Minister of Health Council Meeting in Doha, January 5, 2004.
Your Excellencies, delegation members, colleagues, ladies, and gentlemen:
Peace be upon you.
It gives me great pleasure to greet you and welcome you in Qatar and convey to you greetings from his HH the Emir and the Crown Prince.
I am glad to see HE the Minister of Health of Yemen and his accompanying delegation here to participate with us in this conference after they joined the GCC minister of health meeting. We hope that their presence will strengthen our efforts to improve the health of the citizens of the GCC states.
I have participated first as a physician, then as undersecretary of health, and finally as a minister in this Council meeting for a period of almost a quarter of a century. I attended the council conference in Muscat in 1979, which was the 3rd year after the creation of this Health Council.
I had the honor of getting to know physicians and Gulf leaders like yourselves during this long period. I gained friendship and knowledge from my association with you. If this is the last year I participate in your meeting as a member, I do hope that I will meet with you on a personal level for many years to come. During this long period of our meetings, we have sought to improve the health services in the GCC countries, and as a result, we have witnessed great developments in health care.
This Council has achieved great steps in health cooperation between the Gulf States. We were hoping to have achieved more than we did but “not everything a man hopes for could be achieved” as a poet once said.
The major achievements of our council, in my opinion, are the following:
Unification of our drug and supply purchase, of which we are proud of.
Combating smoking: Smoking is the worst killer that threatens GCC citizens. Smoking hooks its wicked claws in the bodies and minds of our children. Our Council has achieved great steps in combating smoking in the early years. In the first meeting that I attended in 1979, this Council took a historical decision to prohibit tobacco advertisement in the Gulf. In 1980, this Council began the pressure to raise taxes on tobacco. We started with a 30% increase and reached 100%. Our aim to raise tobacco tax by 150% failed because of pressure and influence from tobacco companies over our ministries and government establishment in the Gulf as the tobacco companies themselves admitted in their secret document that was published recently. In one of these documents that I have a copy of, one of the largest American tobacco companies, claimed that it succeeded in influencing government decisions. I quote from their document: “. . . the industry is positively impacting the government decisions [on tobacco issues] of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE through the creative use of market specific studies, position papers, well-briefed distributors who lobby, media owners and consultants . . ."
The World Bank in its report to WHO in 1999 recommended raising taxation on tobacco as a means to decrease child addiction to nicotine. I quote: “On average, a price rise of 10% on a pack of cigarette would be expected to reduce demand for a cigarette by about 4% in high-income countries, and by 8% in low- and middle-income countries.”
During the last four years, the Ministers of Finance of the GCC countries opposed our Health Council recommendation to raise taxes 150% because of their concern of cigarette smuggling to GCC countries, a concern that is not supported by the World Bank report. This is why cigarette prices in the GCC countries are very cheap. In fact, cigarette in the Gulf states is cheaper than in the countries that produce it. In Qatar for example, the most expensive American pack of cigarette today is QR5.50, while the same pack in the USA costs between QR 15 – 25. In the state of New York, in their campaign to curb smoking in children, the state raised taxes on tobacco and achieved the price of US$7 per pack while the prices are lower in the neighboring US states. The fact that New York state borders are open to other states where tobacco is cheaper did not prevent New York from raising the price of a cigarette.
Recently, Britain raised taxes on tobacco. Therefore, the same pack of cigarette that cost five-and-a-half riyals in Qatar (QR5.50) reached 4.50 sterling pounds in Britain, i.e., QR 29.
It is not a cause of pride for us that the GCC region is one of the cheapest places to buy cigarettes in the world, while it is one of the most expensive places to buy medicinal drugs.
Therefore, we have to discuss in this meeting ways to convince our leaders to adopt our recommendation, which was supported by the WHO, to increase tobacco taxes.
I must add that the government of Qatar has agreed last year to implement this Council’s recommendation to raise taxes to 150% but on condition, one other GCC state implements the same recommendation.
The GCC states have reached a high-quality health care for its citizens in combating diseases and lowering mortality. This is supported by health indicators that are published by the Health Council Secretariat. We have eradicated most of the children communicable diseases that could be prevented by immunization like polio. The average life expectancy for citizens of the Gulf States is similar to the advanced countries. Maternal and child mortality has decreased significantly. In Qatar for example, infant mortality in 1981 was 17 per 1000 births and in the year 2002, it decreased to 8.7 per 1000 births which are close to the infant mortality in the USA and Britain, which is 7 per1000 births.
Finally, due to the short time, I will stop here and read you a poem I wrote especially to welcome you.