BEIRUT: Supporters of the smoking ban introduced last Monday have urged the government to back Law 174 with additional measures to reduce the number of smokers in Lebanon, where nearly 43 percent of men and 27 percent of women smoke. Civil society activists and medical specialists told The Daily Star that Law 174 was a good step, but support services for smokers trying to quit, training for doctors and increases in tax on cigarettes were also needed to help cut tobacco prevalence.
In other countries with similar laws, governments offered free advice and medication for smokers who wanted to quit and ramped up prices on tobacco products before applying the smoking bans.
Rima Nakkash, coordinator of the American University of Beirut’s Tobacco Research Control Group, stressed that smoking addicts need support to kick the habit. “If you are making all these policies and your intention is to help smokers to quit and youth not to start, somewhere you have to provide these services.”
Currently, the Health Ministry does not provide any support, but some hospitals offer private services to those looking to stop smoking.
Patients pay an initial fee for consultations, and around $100-200 for three months’ treatments, such as nicotine patches or medication.
Nakkash suggested the Health Ministry could at least look into coordinating these services to make them more accessible. “Maybe the issue is bringing them together as a network and making sure that people out there who want smoking cessation support know where to go,” she said.
However, she was skeptical that the Health Ministry would introduce its own scheme voluntarily: “If any kind of move or initiative were made available at a government level, that would be initiated by civil society.”
A lack of awareness and training in tobacco cessation among doctors across the country may also hinder efforts to wean smokers off tobacco. Currently, treatments to help beat nicotine addictions are not included on medical curricula in Lebanon, and doctors only learn about the subject if they pursue further medical education after they qualify.
Rima Khalil has specialized in smoking cessation since 1997 after training in Australia, and runs a private clinic to help Beirutis stop smoking.
She has campaigned for Law 174, and bemoans lax attitudes to smoking among health professionals. “The medical community does not help because lots of doctors smoke and this is a handicap.”
But with a pack of imported cigarettes costing on average just $1.40 in Lebanon, according to research from 2010, many smokers may not feel a financial need to quit. There have been calls to increase tax on cigarettes in conjunction with the ban, but so far campaigners have had little success.
“We worked to raise the level of taxes on tobacco, we tried to integrate the increase in tax into the law,” said Rania Baroud, head of the nongovernmental Tobacco Free Initiative. “We passed the law first and foremost, and now we are working at government level to increase the tobacco taxation.”
However, George Saade, coordinator of the Health Ministry’s Tobacco Control Program, said now that the law was being implemented, his department was starting to look into measures to cut tobacco use.
“This law is in its infancy now, and we will start to see how we can deal with the smoker who is going to quit smoking,” he said. “However, due to budget constraints, financial constraints, we were not able to put this strategy within the comprehensive law that we made.”
Saade said that the Tobacco Control Program was actively looking into developing smoking free cessation facilities and hoped that something could be arranged in the next two years.
The Health Ministry is also keen to boost cigarette taxes, Saade told The Daily Star, and it would like to see increases of at least 70 percent.
However, Saade was unsure whether the Health Ministry would be able to raise taxes in the near future because of pressure from tobacco interest groups.