On Saturday Mohammad Machnouk, Lebanon’s interior minister, announced that the much-buffeted Law 174, which banned smoking in public places, such as cafes, restaurants, bars, government buildings and offices, was to be “relaxed”. Presumably this was to ease the burden on a hospitality sector still reeling from a decimated tourism industry and the ongoing political chaos. It prompted a jubilant head of Lebanon’s syndicate of restaurant owners to claim, rather bizarrely, that the move protected “Lebanon and its cuisine.” .
When the legislation was enacted in September 2012, the private sector went nuts, claiming that US$50 million worth of business and about 2,500 jobs would be lost as a result of the new edict. Owners claimed business, which was already down 30 per cent because of a disastrous summer season, had plummeted by another 30 per cent virtually overnight.
Lebanon’s enthusiastic smokers, meanwhile, were left wondering why they would suddenly be liable for a $450 fine, while who they saw as the real criminals were getting away, in some cases literally, with murder. It was hard not to sympathise. Since then, Law 174 has been gradually abused by a combination of bad enforcement and the ingenuity of business owners who have found loopholes.
To be fair the law was ill-conceived. It should have been phased in over a period of time and it did not take into consideration the interests of the hundreds of shisha cafes across the country. They should have been given the right to apply for a specific licence and taxed to the heavens for the right to run their businesses. At the same time, there should have been a concurrent public health campaign to highlight the benefits of smoke-free public places as part of a wider initiative to get people to quit.
I am quite convinced that the majority of Lebanon’s smokers do not know that around half of all smokers die from smoking-related diseases with a life expectancy of about 10 years less than a non-smoker. In Britain, where there are about 10 million adult smokers, the number of ex-smokers now exceeds that of smokers, while more and more people are either quitting or deciding not to start. Compare this to the middle of the 20th century, when 85 per cent of British men smoked. Public campaigns work.
Thirty years ago in Britain it was still possible to smoke on the bus and the Underground, something that would be inconceivable now. Since 2007, when it was forbidden to smoke in public and enclosed spaces, people have adjusted. The cost of a packet of cigarettes — now a staggering £10 (Dh56) — has surely helped to convince people to give up. My wife, a committed smoker in Lebanon, has stopped since moving to England. It is simply too expensive she says. QED.
In Lebanon, cigarettes are still ludicrously cheap — around US$2 a pack. Surely the state is missing a trick here. Taxing cigarettes would put the burden of responsibility on the smoker, generate more money for Lebanon’s woefully underfunded government health service and reduce smoking-related deaths. It’s a no-brainer and the Lebanese government should have stood firm.
Over at the health ministry, Wael Abou Faour must surely concede that he has been put in a difficult, almost untenable, situation. The young minister has made a name for himself in the past six months by leading what can only be described a mini-crusade to ensure food safety, shutting down shops, dairy farms, restaurants and abattoirs across the country, even highlighting the appalling conditions of food storage at Lebanon’s ports and airport.
How he can he now talk about a ministry that is genuinely acting on the behalf of the best interest of its citizens, while sitting back and accepting that one of the most positive health-driven legislations in recent years has been compromised?
This current development is ultimately about Lebanon’s inability to enforce the rule of law; its rather worrying habit of putting crude business interests ahead of the public good and its reluctance to embrace the lesson learnt in other countries. With only 70 per cent of restaurants and bars currently abiding by the law, the amendment will be seen as a green light to spark up at will across the nation. Law 174, has in effect, been killed and Mr Machnouk, who drew criticism for himself smoking during a TV interview at the interior ministry, should be ashamed of himself.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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