BEIRUT: Though countless bars and restaurants in Lebanon relaxed the four-month-old indoor smoking ban during the holiday season by allowing patrons to light up inside, commitment to enforcing the controversial law has not necessarily gone up in smoke just yet.
Last week, some of the estimated 1,000 business owners who have been fined for violations of Law 174 were finally called into court and ordered to pay LL3 million each, Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Daily Star Tuesday. He was speaking following a meeting he held with Prime Minister Najib Mikati to discuss the law which was also attended by the heads of the Interior, Economy, and Public Health ministries. The four ministries are collectively charged with implementing and enforcing the smoking ban.
Abboud has called for amendments to the law over the past few months, but was careful to point out that he was not seeking any legislative changes in Tuesday’s meeting, but clarifications of certain elements of the law that are creating confusion among the tourist police, the police force that is under his ministry but staffed by members of the Internal Security Forces controlled by the Interior Ministry.
“We don’t believe changing the law is the best way to go,” he said. “We just want to be clear about the issue of what is defined as an outdoor space. At this moment in time the tourist police are not clear whether a terrace that has been equipped with curtains and fans during the winter is considered outdoor space ... And if we allow smokers in up to 20 percent of [rooms in] hotels, why is it that we don’t have cigar lounges or smoking areas in these hotels?”
The law took eight years to pass, Abboud said, so he is not expecting these issues to be resolved any time soon, but negotiations will continue. Another meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office is scheduled for next Tuesday.
The two poles that have emerged in the debate are by now familiar to most readers of the media. The Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Pastries has been one of the strongest supporters of amending the law to allow shisha cafes, cigar bars, and other establishments geared specifically to smokers to be exempted from the ban as long as they have proper ventilation, a government license, and meet other established criteria modeled after similar laws passed in other countries.
Ziad Kamel, the Treasurer of the Syndicate, said that despite lax enforcement by the state, 88 percent of the members in his syndicate have voluntarily complied with the smoking ban since it went into effect in September and made the necessary renovations to accommodate smokers in spaces with three walls and a ceiling as the law requires. About 800 restaurants and bars that cater specifically to smokers have refused to abide by the law, he said.
“Our official position is that the law is too extreme,” Kamel added. “I have The Angry Monkey and four restaurants in Gemmayzeh and I am happily enforcing the smoking law, but I support the businesses that will go bankrupt because it contains no exemptions.”
On the other side of the debate are civil society groups who had a seat at the negotiating table when the current law was drafted and support its full implementation in current form. They claim that after an initial burst of enforcement in September, violations have increased and law enforcement officers have turned a blind eye, whether due to social norms in favor of smoking or a lack of clarity about which state entities are ultimately responsible for enforcement.
Dr. Rima Nakkash, an assistant professor of the department of Health Promotion and Community Health of American University of Beirut said that the law has been applied at a certain level in various hospitality sector restaurants and pubs whose owners are convinced of [its] value, but more needs to be done by the government to get noncompliant restaurants to follow law.
“The government has done a good job so far but there needs to be more coordination between the ministries involved. Stronger leadership from the prime minister needs to be involved.
“We are urging the Justice Ministry to process the fines so it can be an example to violators that this is a real law and we want the tourism minister to stop saying he can’t support law because he doesn’t have the personnel.”
Based on Abboud’s account of the chain of enforcement, this is not likely to happen soon. Every day the Tourism Ministry receives between 30 to 40 reports of violations on its public hotline, he says, and he personally decides which ones to follow-up on with the officer in charge of the tourism police force.
“Every morning the colonel responsible for the tourist police calls me to tell me what happened the day before. I tell him to make sure to go to this area,” Abboud says, adding he asks: “When did you last go to this area,” to determining which of the violations to inspect each day. “I only have three patrols for the whole of country. Imagine with three cars and six police officers we get a call in Zahle and it takes 45 minutes to get there. So some people outside Beirut are still smoking wherever.”
Ali Fakhry, the media campaigner of the activist group IndyACT, believes that opposition from key stakeholders in the restaurant industry is aimed at undermining enforcement of the law long-term in the hopes of turning the smoking ban into one of the many laws ignored in Lebanon.
“The tactic is, yes, we have a law, but we will make people not abide by it,” Fakhry said, “if you can make it a tradition or custom in Lebanese society like not wearing a seatbelt. Lebanese people know there is a law about wearing seatbelts but you can pass by a police officer without a seatbelt and he will not do anything. So the syndicate is saying do not apply the law, allow smoking in pubs and restaurants. The police will come once or twice and you give them a little money and they go away.”