Smoke and mirrors

Banner No Smoking is hanging on the wall at the parliament in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (The Daily Star)

No one can deny that smoking kills people, and reducing the number of smokers in this country, which unfortunately boasts one of the highest rates in the world, would be an admirable step. But the law, which as of Monday bans smoking in all public places, has been introduced without the necessary foundations.

A problem such as smoking, an activity so entrenched in the Lebanese culture and lifestyle, cannot be solved from the top down.

Law 174 was passed only one year ago, and 365 days is insufficient time to revolutionize how a population views this addictive habit.

In countries where smoking bans have been respected and adhered to, prohibition has followed years of awareness-raising, in schools, at home and in the media, with campaigns often driven by grassroots activists.

While undoubtedly many Lebanese support the ban, and indeed it was drafted by civil society, it has not been given the necessary breathing time for it to be expected to be successful.

Fundamental to the enactment of any law, in any country, is the knowledge that it will be enforced. But in Lebanon, which is not exactly well known for its law-abiding ways, the government can scarcely believe that people will suddenly, willingly, stub out their much-loved cigarettes, when they have been hardly eager to belt up in cars or to get off the phone while driving. Those who do wear seat belts do so for safety reasons, not because it’s against the law.

As the recent months have shown, if we needed a reminder, there are limits to what the government can do. And Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud admitted last week that his tourist police, who will contribute to the army of Law 174 observers, are too few in number to enforce the law sufficiently.

The Association of Restaurants and Hotels warned Sunday that up to 10,000 jobs could be in jeopardy should the law be implemented fully, as around 1,000 nargileh cafes would be forced to shut down. This seems slightly overblown, as smoking will still be permitted in outdoor areas, but it does seem that the law has been written with some oversights.

But something smokers often forget, for non-smokers a night out is often tainted by the permeation of second-hand smoke to their hair and clothes. Many of these non-smokers will now be more tempted to go out and spend a longer time in nightclubs or restaurants, where the law is indeed implemented.

Smoking is the No. 1 killer in Lebanon, in the absence of deadly clashes between different clans, accounting for 10 deaths every single day.

To see a reduction in smokers would be undeniably positive. The process to implement the ban is long, but it is worthwhile. And while it may not be enforced fully as of today, with a concerted effort from civil society, the government and the public, the smoking ban may one day buck the trend of law enforcement in Lebanon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 03, 2012, on page 7.




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