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Abboud: Tourism Police too few to enforce smoking ban

Abboud, Krab and activists who worked on the smoking ban discuss hurdles facing its implementation. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud warned Tuesday that the ranks of the Tourism Police are severely understaffed, and he may not have enough officers to enforce the new smoking ban that goes into effect next week.

At a news conference at the ministry, Abboud said he currently had a staff of around 70 tourism police officers, but only 10 of them could be devoted to enforcing the smoking ban. That is a far cry from the 256 Tourism Police units the law says the ministry needs to effectively enforce the ban.

A number of other police units including the Internal Security Forces, which has the largest number of officers in the country, will also take part in enforcing the new law.

“Increasing the number of Tourism Police is essential in guaranteeing the law in all parts of Lebanon,” he said. “Only when the government provides enough police and starts implementing the law, only then can the Tourism Police start working seriously.”

Abboud said the ministry would work with the police forces of other ministries such as the Interior Ministry to effectively implement the new law.

“We are speaking about a law, not a decree. It didn’t come from the ministry but from Parliament,” Abboud said. He said he delivered on promises to ban smoking at the airport and will do so again.

The law to prohibit smoking in indoor places has been met by a dose of skepticism from many groups in the country who say a country with very limited rule of law will have difficulty banning a favorite Lebanese pastime. Lebanon has one of the highest smoking rates worldwide.

The first stage of the smoking law has already gone into effect, prohibiting smoking in public buildings and on public transportation. But few if any tickets have been handed out, and smoking remains rife in public transport.

Even leaders of government programs have been quick to acknowledge the difficulties in enforcing a smoking ban in a country where bribes are commonplace and which struggles with providing basic services or security.

But Abboud and advocates of the new law are mostly unfazed. They say the police are equipped to start handing out fines for smoking and to do what is necessary to implement the law.

“The ministry is prepared to exercise its oversight in this matter because of our faith that the health of our youth comes first,” he said.

Abboud is also reining in his expectations of how quickly the law can be implemented and warned that some people may try to reinterpret the law to get around its prohibitions. He said wiggle room on what qualifies as an indoor space could make enforcement difficult.

“The implementation of the law is going to come with a lot of obstacles,” Abboud said.

His comments are part of a broad final push by government officials and anti-smoking advocates to convince people of the merits of the new indoor smoking ban and enforce the law.

The American University of Beirut announced Tuesday public activities to celebrate the smoking ban and Nadine Kayrouz al-Krab from the Tobacco Free Initiative also spoke at the news conference Tuesday to try and dispel notions that the tourism and service industry would take a hit from the ban.

The Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants Cafes, Night Clubs and Pastries in Lebanon published a survey recently that predicted major declines in revenue and employment after the ban goes into place.

Krab said that despite warnings from business owners that a smoking ban would stop people from going out and spending money, other studies indicate that restaurants and bars break even or raise their profits when customers spend money on something besides cigarettes.

“Instead of spending the whole night just smoking shisha they can eat, they can spend, and they can drink so they spend much more money,” she said.

Krab warned there may be a slight dip in customer spending as people adjust to the new law, but is confident the market will quickly recover.

“So maybe at the beginning people will not want to go out, but after a while, if everybody is implementing the law, everybody is going to go out again,” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 29, 2012, on page 4.

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