Dubai: Smokers who dismiss a slight but persistent cough, commonly referred to as smoker's cough, should be cautioned about the indication of a serious respiratory syndrome, said experts on Sunday. Speaking of tobacco smoke — second-hand or passive exposure — as the main cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), experts said that 1.9 per cent of the UAE's population suffers from COPD. Of these, 63 per cent of patients remain untreated in the country — the highest figure in the MENA region. The data was part of a BREATHE study published in December 2012. The study estimated the prevalence of COPD symptoms within the general population of 11 countries in the MENA region, including the UAE.The World Health Organisation (WHO) states COPD is an under-diagnosed and life-threatening lung disease that may progressively lead to death. During a media event organised by pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim that brought together specialists in pulmonology and respiratory fields from the UAE and the region, the focus was the worrying level of smoking prevalence and under-diagnosis of COPD among smokers. All kinds of tobacco smoke increases the risk of COPD, said Dr Bassam Mahboub, consultant respiratory physician at Rashid Hospital, Dubai. Speaking to Gulf News, Dr Mahboub said, "The prevalence of smokers in the UAE is estimated to be around 23-24 per cent - with almost half smoking cigarettes, and the remainder shisha and midwakh. Younger people are taking up shisha, and younger male Emiratis are taking up midwakh. Of the overall percentage of smoking, at least a quarter are at risk of developing COPD." The majority of residents in the UAE aren't being treated for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. "In smokers especially, COPD is common," said Dr Mohammad Zeitouni, consultant pulmonologist, King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, Riyadh, speaking to Gulf News. He explained that the morbidity and mortality from COPD is expected to rise in the region due to the prevalence of smoking among men and women. "Symptoms of COPD include chronic dry or productive cough, shortness of breath during minimum exertion, inability to take a deep breath, among others. It isn't curable, but if diagnosed in time, can be controlled with medication." Prof Adel Khatab, Chairman of the Department of Pulmonary Medicine at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt added, "People, especially children, exposed to second-hand smoke should be protected. Stricter laws should be in place for this." According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use is the main cause of COPD but air pollutants at home (such as second-hand smoke) and at work (such as dusts, gases, and fumes), and genetics play a role.