BEIRUT: Health and university officials on Thursday reiterated the need for comprehensive tobacco control legislation as parliamentarians continue to debate a draft law. Rather than adopt “half measures,” Parliament must enact a total ban on smoking in indoor public places, halt advertising and sponsorship by the tobacco industry, and issue large graphic health warnings on tobacco products, said members of the American University of Beirut’s Tobacco Control Research Group (AUB-TCRG).
The Parliamentary Committee for Administration and Justice has held regular meetings in recent weeks to discuss adopting a proposed tobacco control law. But the draft “is not as comprehensive as we’d want,” said AUB-TCRG coordinator Rima Nakkash, as it only calls for a partial ban on smoking and fails to stipulate the need for graphic warnings or a ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship.
A stringent ban “needs to go into effect directly … and cannot be compromised,” she said. Unless this is done soon, around 150,000 children and 350,000 adults alive today will die prematurely from smoking or second-hand smoke, the group said.
Lebanon has a higher number of smokers than the regional average – the Health Ministry estimates 45 percent of males and 34 percent of females are regular tobacco users. Over 3,500 people are killed by tobacco exposure each year, costing the state $900 million.
The Health Ministry has also said 75 percent of children here are subjected to second-hand smoke exposure, increasing their chances of suffering from serious lung and respiratory illnesses and cot death.
Although there are more non-smokers in Lebanon than smokers, public use of tobacco is widely seen as socially acceptable. Narghileh is revered almost as a cultural icon. But opinions are slowly turning – last week Social Affairs Minister Selim Sayegh banned smoking at his ministry.
The draft law to ban smoking was not “an issue of non-smokers against smokers,” said Alan Shihadeh, AUB-TCRG member and an associated professor of mechanical engineering. Rather, it is aimed at breaking the tobacco industry’s control over public-health policies. “We believe the tobacco industry should no longer have a free reign over public-health policy in Lebanon … its need for profits are irreconcilable” with public wellbeing, he said.
Lebanon signed the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005 but has made little effort to enforce it. A draft law to ban smoking in public places was submitted to Parliament in 2006 and was forgotten amid a devastating war with Israel.
Beirut has failed to implement the convention’s key obligations, such as Article 11, which states that countries must implement effective health-warning labels on tobacco products within three years of adopting the convention.
Article 8, which obligates Lebanon to “strive to provide universal protection” within five years, has been ignored.
A recent survey of 30 pubs and restaurants by the Health Ministry’s Tobacco Control Program found tobacco smoke pollution levels to be radically higher than WHO recommendations of less than 15 micrograms cubed a day.
Some 60 percent of establishments tested registered an average 309 micrograms per meter. The organizations considers anything above 251 micrograms as a “health warning of emergency conditions.”