BEIRUT: The final stage of the smoking ban is to be implemented next week, which will mean no more lighting up in the indoor sections of bars, cafes, nightclubs or restaurants across Lebanon.
It has been met with skepticism and derision by many, but the authors of the law, and those responsible for implementing it, insist it will be successful. The first stage of the law, introduced last September, saw smoking banned, in theory, in all public buildings – hospitals, government buildings, malls, the airport and public transport. Then in March came a ban on all advertising, or sponsorship, of cigarettes and tobacco-related products.
However, Dr. George Saade, coordinator of the National Tobacco Control Program, which falls under the Health Ministry, admits that there have been issues with implementation thus far.
“In Lebanon, in a country where systems do not exist, and laws are not respected, where armed personnel can kidnap people with no fear, how can you tell people not to smoke?” he asks.
No data exists on whether fines have been handed out yet, (those found smoking on public transport can be fined up to LL135,000 and drivers LL2 million) but Saade says the implementation of the law is now moving to a stricter stage: “We are ready to give fines now.”
However, Saade draws a distinction between public and private institutions, and believes the law will be much easier to enforce at bars and restaurants than in taxis, or municipal buildings, for example.
“We are not so optimistic in public places, nobody is scared of anything, just like with seatbelts,” Saade says. However, the overwhelming public enthusiasm for the smoking ban and the support from civil society convinces Saade that the ban will be much more successful at private venues.
There are no specific “smoking monitors” employed to observe the ban, rather members of the Internal Security Forces, Health Ministry observers, the Consumer Protection Offices at the Economy Ministry, Tourist Police and municipal staff will all pitch in.
Rena Timsah, media officer at the nongovernmental organization IndyACT, which was instrumental in drafting the current law, says the NGO is organizing a team of volunteers willing to help fill the gaps where officials may fail, whether due to lack of resources, or corruption.
The “Tobacco Control Citizen Watch” currently has 60 volunteers, from across Lebanon, but the team is looking for more.
Working from each side, the watchdog will monitor both how business owners are enforcing the law in their own establishments, and how government authorities are working to enforce the law.
Members of the public are also encouraged to report any violations to the authorities, by calling various hotlines, (the Health Ministry on 1214; the Interior Ministry on 112, the Economy Ministry on 1739 and the Tourism Ministry on 1735).
In a recent study, conducted by Ernst and Young and commissioned by the Syndicate of Restaurant Owners, 82 percent of respondents, themselves owners of hospitality venues, believe the law would lead to an increase in corruption, and 71 percent believe authorities cannot enforce the law.
Natalie Kazzouh, programs and communications officer at the National Tobacco Control Program, says she can’t deny that corruption exists.
“I won’t say that this doesn’t happen, there is a level of corruption. But the good thing is that there is monitoring ... and civil society and citizens will also call and report violations and then we will send an inspector.”
Also, she adds, there is a specific fine designed to discourage any inspectors tempted to accept bribes rather than hand out fines.
Any inspector found to be falsely reporting violations faces a prison sentence of one to three months.
“The law is designed to prevent this ‘false reporting,’ and it was inserted based on experiences from outside,” Kazzouh adds.
Many critics of the ban, Law 174, are not only skeptical that in a country where authorities cannot prevent road closures or kidnappings, it will be nigh on impossible to crack down on those smoking a single cigarette, but that there are bigger, more pressing concerns facing the country, such as 24-hour electricity or security.
For Timsah, this argument is irrelevant. “We do know there are huge issues in the country, but we believe this is equally as important,” she says.
Lebanon has some of the highest rates of smoking in the world, with 42 percent of men and 27 percent of adult women smoking. At home, 78 percent of children are exposed to smoke, according to an AUB study.
Responsible for over 3,500 deaths each year in Lebanon, equivalent to around five every day, smoking is the No. 1 killer in the country. One in 10 of those who die from smoking-related illnesses are not even smokers themselves, Timsah adds.
“We have this reputation for being a civilized and up to date country, and if we want to maintain this, we have to implement this law.
“We just want Lebanese society to be able to breathe clean air, a freedom that people have the right to have,” she adds.
Ziad Kamel, founder and CEO of the Alleyway Group in Gemmazyeh, and the treasurer at the Syndicate of Restaurant Owners, welcomes the ban, and says he is looking forward to implementing it at his own venues.
However, the syndicate board members believe a couple of key areas have been overlooked by the authors, specifically the issue of nargileh cafes.
“I believe the people who wrote the law have done a fantastic job. But I believe they overlooked one aspect. I agree second-hand smoke is extremely deadly, and no one should be exposed to that.
“But in a shisha cafe or a cigar lounge, it should be allowed: Anyone bothered by smoking would not go close to one.”
Around 1,000 cafes across Lebanon rely mainly or entirely on shisha, Kamel says, but the ban will only affect indoor quarters.
The syndicate has pointed to exemptions which exist in other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, where shisha cafes can apply for specific licenses.
This would be mutually beneficial Kamel says, as the funds raised from the licenses could go to the Health Ministry, for example.
Kazzouh, from the National Tobacco Control Program, says that the law must be consistent and comprehensive.
“In Lebanon, when you start having exemptions, the whole thing falls apart,” she says.
“This law is a way to protect smokers, non-smokers and the workers. We cannot compromise on that as there is no safe level of exposure. We’re against designated areas, because as soon as you start giving exemptions, people use their wasta [connections].”
The Ernst and Young study also shows that tourism spending may decrease by $46 million after the ban is implemented.
Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Daily Star that this is a concern of his, but that “I think the cost of lung cancer to the tax payer is more than $46 million.”
Smoking-related diseases cost $350 million per year in Lebanon.
Abboud says he is confident the ban will be implemented, but that it should have been implemented more gradually, and perhaps with the option of licenses available to shisha cafe owners.
He also highlights the disconnect between a “total ban on smoking, when a packet of cigarettes is among the cheapest in the world.”
This is an irony not lost on Kamel, also, “If the government really cares about the health of people, why does Lebanon have some of the cheapest cigarettes in the world?