Before heading to lunch or going out for drinks, find an ashtray and stub out that cigarette. Starting today, smoking is prohibited in all enclosed bars, restaurant and cafes in Lebanon in accordance with Law 174, which passed exactly one year ago.
The anti-tobacco legislation has already been the target of much criticism, from some who believe that the government should focus on more critical matters to those who warn that the ban will hurt the hospitality sector and the country’s wider economy.
The associations of restaurants and hotels have cried foul, urging that the law be amended and threatening to take escalatory steps if it is not.
In a statement issued over the weekend, the Restaurants Owners’ Association described the law as poorly drafted, “paving the way for uneven implementation and corruption, in addition to negatively impacting the service and tourism sectors.”
“We will be starting a strike and [will] shut our businesses ourselves instead of letting the government close them down,” Shebel Abu Shebel, a member of the association, told MTV television station Saturday, adding that stronger measures over the coming weeks should be expected if demands aren’t met.
Meanwhile the head of the Hotel Owners’ Association, Pierre Ashkar, warned that thousands of employees could be let go if nargileh cafes are forced to shut down due to lack of business.
“Around 1,000 cafes in Lebanon are specialized in nargileh and if they stop working, they will have to let 10,000 employees go,” Ashkar said.
The association has called for excluding entertainment businesses from the ban, including pubs, nightclubs and nargileh cafes and has asked that indoor smoking be allowed in venues with proper ventilation and age restrictions.
The ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and cafes is the final stage of the law that also saw the banning of smoking in all public buildings – government offices, hospitals and institutions of education – and on public transport.
Enforcement in these areas has so far been patchy.
The National Tobacco Control Program says that no data exists on whether any fines have been handed out.
Responsibility for enforcing the law falls to members of various bodies – the Internal Security Forces, the Health Ministry, the Consumer Protection Offices at the Economy Ministry, the Tourist Police and municipal staff.
Civil society is also doing its bit, with volunteers from the “Tobacco Control Citizen Watch” vowing to keep restaurant owners, and the official observers themselves, on their toes.
But in a recent Ernst and Young study, commissioned by the Association of Restaurant Owners, 82 percent of respondents, themselves owners of hospitality venues, believe the law would lead to an increase in corruption.
Out of total revenues, which exceed $735 million, the association said the revenues of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs could decline by $282 million, putting the figure at 7.1 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.
The Ernst & Young study also claimed that around $46 million would be lost in tourism spending, putting over 2,600 full time jobs in danger of being phased out.
But Rania Baroud, from the non-governmental organization the Tobacco Free Initiative, said that enforcing the law could actually improve restaurants’ revenues. “People adjust to the ban within two weeks and resume going to restaurants and bars normally. The revenues of the Turkish tourism sector in fact increased 5 percent after the smoking ban was implemented,” she said.
Smoking rates in Lebanon are among the highest in the world, with 42 percent of men and 27 percent of adult women smoking.