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Smoking ban leaves Lebanese fuming

Bilal Hussein / AP

A Lebanese man smokes a water pipe outside a coffee shop in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday - the same day a smoking ban in restaurants went into effect.

BEIRUT – On a recent warm summer night in the heart of Beirut, a few dozen people gathered in a city square to attend a music concert launching a public awareness campaign. In a country that loves music – free concerts can often draw big crowds. But surprisingly few had turned out.

Perhaps the unpopularity of the new public awareness campaign was the reason why.

On Monday, a ban on smoking in closed places like restaurants, cafes, pubs and night went into effect – leaving many smokers and business owners fuming. 

(Ironically, I caught a glimpse of one of the volunteers working for the “No-Smoking” campaign at the concert taking a break from the heat and loud music by doing what? Lighting up a cigarette just beside the stage.)

In a country where smoking – and that means cigarettes, cigars and “nargilehs” (traditional flavored water pipes) – are part of the culture and lifestyle, many have denounced the ban on smoking as a colossal example of the government’s failure to tackle more pressing priorities in the country.

At the popular Grand Café, the aroma of water pipes filled the air. Few of the customers I spoke with are happy about the ban.

“The government has a million problems; this is not the main one. Let them go collect the garbage on the streets and organize the traffic around the city,” said Ahmed, a 27-year-old smoker who just gave his first name.

Smoking culture
How big of an issue is smoking in Lebanon?   

The World Health Organization estimates that close to 39 percent of adults in Lebanon smoke daily. That’s more than Egypt where 19 percent of adults smoke, but which does not have a smoking ban (at least one that is respected and enforced).

In this case, Lebanon is more on par with countries like France and Spain where close to 30 percent of adults smoke – even with tight smoking bans in place. Asian countries remain among the highest percentage of smokers in the world.

In a long list of things that divide people in this country, including the Syrian revolution, domestic politics and more, the smoking ban has proved to be the latest polarizing issue.

On one side are supporters of the ban – mostly civil society organizations, health officials and lawmakers who drafted it. Opponents of the law have been mostly businessmen – the owners of cafes and restaurants.

Bilal Hussein / AP

Restaurants employees hold Arabic placards that read, "the smoking ban is more important that kidnappings?" left, and "impose more laws and the country will go bankrupt," right, during a sit-in to protest the state imposition of a smoking ban in closed public places in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday.

Businesses fear losses
The popular Falamenki Café hosts smokers 24 hours a day – but many fear the ban will undoubtedly affect businesses. Much of the commercial traffic is driven by smokers and snackers. The problem is that there is no designated smoking section.

Lina, a furniture design retailer who also smokes, supports the ban but believes special licenses should be issued to cafes. In the winter, places like Falamenki take the smoking indoors, making it extremely uncomfortable for non-smoking patrons. Now with this ban, smokers will not be allowed to light up indoors and many believe it will decrease business big time.  

“In Europe, smoking bars are allowed, but only with special licenses," Lina said, adding that’s what she thinks should be the case in Lebanon, too. “So owners can apply to get it before they open a bar.” 

The Association of Restaurant Owners in Lebanon commissioned a study by Ernst and Young that found the ban on smoking could have a significant impact on the country’s GDP and its tourism, according to a local media report. 

The study found that the ban could decrease revenue by as much as $280 million for restaurants, pubs and nightclubs. The study also claimed that tourism revenue could drop by as much as $46 million. Much of Lebanon tourism is driven by its relaxed lifestyle culture where tourists frequent cafes, bars and restaurants.

Government should tackle bigger tobacco issue
Supporters of the ban say this is a public health issue. They cite examples of other countries where commercial traffic actually increased after similar bans went into effect.  

In Turkey, for example, business revenues reportedly increased by as much as 5 percent after a similar ban was imposed – more people and their families went to restaurants or cafes where smoking had been prevalent, making the atmosphere uncomfortable.

But not everyone here is convinced the ban was motivated by a public health concern.

“The government should do more to make it difficult to import tobacco and put more pressure on local tobacco companies,” said Ghada, a 35-year-old smoker who gave only her first name. “Banning smoking won’t do any good for the smokers and their health, only the non-smokers.”  

She believes the government needs to do more to help fight tobacco addiction – the real cause of the smoking epidemic.  

Many fear it will only lead to more corruption as bars, restaurants and cafes will be tempted to bribe local law enforcement officials to turn a blind eye if they violate the ban.

With summer tourism drying up, the crisis in Syria widening and the threat of war between Iran and Israel looming, many Lebanese have pressing issues on the minds. But kicking back, lighting up and taking their minds off them at the local café may no longer be an option. 

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