BEIRUT: The Health Ministry is committed to the smoking ban, and the appointment of new administrative staff will not affect grants Lebanon receives to reduce tobacco use, ministry officials told The Daily Star.
The newly appointed director of the NTCP, Fadi Snan, said Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil was determined to uphold the anti-smoking campaign and “improve it further.”
Lebanon’s anti-smoking campaign is gaining momentum due to contributions from philanthropists including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has donated a considerable share through The Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use.
And the country is not alone in its efforts, as anti-tobacco campaigns in developing nations around the world have also benefited from funding by generous donors.
Bloomberg is the 13th wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of $27 billion, according to a list published by Forbes magazine earlier this year.
The NTCP in Beirut has received at least $600,000 from Bloomberg’s $250 million donation to the campaign.
The funds have been used to train inspectors, produce anti-tobacco advertisements and cover NTCP administrative costs.
Officials at the Health Ministry said the funds were procured through a program coordinated by the ministry and the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.
The first installment of funds were dispatched during former Health Minister Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh’s tenure and the second was granted after 2011, when Parliament approved Law 174 that prohibits smoking in indoor public spaces.
Parliament approved Law 174 in September 2011, after protracted negotiations with civil society groups. However, when the law went into effect the following year, restaurant and cafe owners were taken by surprise.
Since the law’s implementation, some restaurant ownershave attempted to call on their political connections to rescind the law. When those attempts failed, business owners, in turn, took to the streets demanding that amendments be made to the law so that restaurants can have the option of applying for a smoking license.
“We [at the Health Ministry] are for its full implementation and we are against amending Law 174 in any way,” said Snan, who oversees six officers at NTCP.
Snan said talks between the ministry and other state officials focused on ways to best coordinate the work between the different ministries, in order to avert overlapping responsibilities.
“No one brought up the issue of amendments at the meetings, but whoever wants to amend the law can go and ask the Parliament for it.”
The reshuffling of NTCP’s administration several months ago concerned anti-tobacco campaigners and spread unease that government corruption would stifle the program.
A report published by a local newspaper claimed that replacing former director George Saade with Snan would spell the end of the Bloomberg grants in Lebanon.
But Snan rejected the newspaper’s allegations in an interview with The Daily Star. “The article lacks credibility; the administrative changes were necessary,” he explained.
Snan said the changes were due partly to NTCP’s inability to communicate effectively with restaurants and businesses between the approval of the anti-smoking law and its implementation.
“There was not enough contact between restaurants and the National Tobacco Control Program,” Snan said, adding that restaurant owners were supposed to have been informed, and not surprised, about the new law.
“Restaurants had one year to prepare themselves and take necessary measures to adapt their establishments according to the smoking ban,” the director added.
Ahmad Ramadan, the NTCP’s administrative and finance officer, said that a grant of $331,000 was given to the program between 2009 and 2011, and 70 percent of the remaining $256,000 has already been allocated.
An further $30,000 has been granted to the program by the World Lung Foundation, another partner organization of the Bloomberg Initiative.
While some civil society activists criticized the government’s commitment to implementing the law, experts who coordinate the anti-tobacco campaign with the NTCP believe Lebanon is doing an exceptionally good job in curbing smoking.
“Since September, the law has been at least 60 to 70 percent implemented, and that is pretty impressive,” Gihan al-Nahas, the Regional Coordinator of the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease told The Daily Star in a telephone call.
“Yes it is true that the number of inspectors is low, that is true for most countries in the world,” Nahas said.
“The work in Lebanon toward curbing smoking is in line with global standards,” he added.
Nahas last visited Beirut in February and said she was surprised by the country’s commitment to the anti-smoking law, particularly at the airport and in restaurants.
“When I arrived at Beirut airport, I intentionally asked everyone around to find a place to smoke, but everyone warned me not to smoke because of the new law,” she added.
“Lebanon is a trend-setting country, if it is able to implement its anti-tobacco law, it will affect the entire Arab world,” said Nahas.