BEIRUT: Step into a bar in Beirut and you will be greeted by something unusual: fresh and clear air. With the advent of a new indoor smoking ban that went into effect last week, police are seen making rounds at most bars in the city and occasionally doling out hefty fines to establishments or individual violators of the ban. Remarkably, in a country where many people are skeptical of the rule of law, the ban is being enforced at places usually known for their chain-smoking haze.
Restaurant and bar owners say their establishments have seen regular patrols by police officers and smoking monitors and add that few patrons have knowingly violated the ban. But the verdict is still out over the merits of the ban and whether it will last.
Opinions over the ban and how it’s being enforced range from anger and frustration over reduced smoking freedom and decreased business to satisfaction over the possibility of a healthier lifestyle.
People’s and businesses’ habits and policies have had to change. Smokers have had to choose not to light up or make the walk outdoors for a smoke. Bar, restaurant and cafe owners have either decided to throw open their doors and take out their windows to claim they are an outdoor locale or submit their interiors to the prohibitions of a smoke free environment.
Supporters of the ban say smokers must now endure the slight inconvenience of smoking outside and returning to a clean bar.
“The law has made things better because of the atmosphere,” said Issa Ohanian at Godot bar in Gemmayzeh. Ohanian says he is a smoker but enjoys being able to go to a bar or restaurant and be around people who don’t smoke.
At smoking lounges and places known as much for their tobacco as their drinks and food, opinions are starkly different.
Samar Monzer, who works at Charlie’s Bar in Gemmayzeh, says patrons haven’t been comfortable in the pub.
“It’s [expletive] to me, people go to pubs to get drunk and smoke,” she said.
Monzer and others say people are enjoying themselves less and spending less money in a place known for its intense nightlife which propels a sector important to the country’s economy.
The smoking ban inside bars and restaurants is the final part of law 174, an anti-tobacco law that prohibits smoking in a wide variety of indoor public and private places. The first package of the law went into effect several months ago and banned smoking in public buildings as well as taxis and public transportation.
The initial phases of the bill were generally regarded as a flop by many anti-smoking advocates as taxi driver smoking continued unabated and police have been unable to enforce the ban on a moving target. Few tickets, if any have been issued.
But the final phase that went into effect last week has at least initially had a larger and more successful impact. Closed-door bars and restaurants have generally changed their smoking policies, whether they liked the ban or not, and government and law enforcement officials have pledged to rigorously enforce the law.
The Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants has claimed the ban is having a negative impact on their businesses and the economy and has called for modifications to the law.
Other people see an upside for business around the country.
“It makes people who don’t smoke want to come here,” said 23-year-old Omar Yacoub, having a smoke outside Hamra’s De Prague pub and Restaurant.
Many wonder whether any of the benefits or pitfalls of the new ban will actually last. Smoking bans in other countries, such as Greece, have faded after periods of initial enforcement, and numerous laws in Lebanon have similarly failed to stick.
However, almost everyone queried about their views on the smoking ban responded with a shrug when asked whether it would last. “I don’t know, it’s Lebanon,” said Taha al-Tahra a bartender in Gemmayzeh.