We were enjoying the ambiance at a resto-bar until it hit, or rather puffed our way. Breathing suddenly became an unpleasant task and there was mist everywhere. I looked around to determine the cause. Lo and behold, practically everyone was smoking, in an enclosed indoor space. Surely, the waiters or management would kindly ask the smokers to refrain? Thirty minutes went by and nothing happened. The mist was now a heavy fog. One of the young ladies in our group looked anxious. She was pregnant and was naturally concerned about the wellbeing of the life growing inside her. “I thought smoking was banned indoors,” she said with a confused look. “There is a law but the management must be paying the authorities to turn a blind eye, or have a special license, or maybe they simply don’t care if people report them,” responded another friend.
I’m not sure what was going on, but I can say that my restaurant experience went up in smoke. No such “special license” exists in Lebanon. I will not be going back to that restaurant, out of a matter of principle. What could have been an enjoyable night turned into a hellish experience. I reeked of smoke when I got home and my throat was sore. And this is not the first time this has happened since Law 174, banning smoking indoors, was enacted. Recently we decided to go clubbing. The second we stepped into the indoor space, we were greeted by a cloud of smoke. Its intense welcome was a bit too much for us and once again on principle we opted to leave. If the management felt it was fine for them to go against the law, then we felt it was fine for us to go against the etiquette of having reserved a table.
The number of places violating the anti-smoking law is now so large that finding a place that enforces it is a real challenge. The culinary delights at restaurants that ignore Law 174 are second to none, because the smoke adds a special garnish to all dishes: chicken à la smoke and ash salad. It enriches the flavours, especially since food is tasted by your sense of smell and not just your tastebuds.
Whether or not Law 174 is perfect is not the issue here. No law is 100 percent perfect after all. Whether or not the majority of people are smokers is not the issue either. The issue is that we live in a strange realm that’s a cross between the Wild West of the days of yore and the insane world of Mad Max. A place of lawlessness. Here, respecting the law seems optional rather than obligatory. Traffic lights are often nothing more than entertaining disco lights and pedestrian crossings are postmodern decor on the asphalt. When Law 174 was looming on the horizon, the food and beverage industry was in an uproar. A dubious study threatened that 2,600 jobs would be lost because of the ban. In truth, the F&B sector has seen job losses, closures, lower profits, and harder times. The blame should fall on the political instability, lack of tourists, random bombings, and high cost of living vs. low salaries, not the anti-smoking law.
Law abiding citizens can call the number 1735 when they see a smoking violation, but with rumors flying around of ridiculously reduced fines and some callers receiving threats from the owners of the places they reported, most are not exactly encouraged to take action. The news about the verbal symphony of insults a woman received in February 2013 when she approached a manager because of smoking violations went viral. Many establishments don’t react well if someone voices their concerns about indoor smoking.
On the bright side we live in a culture that is very considerate of others. Most smokers never ask if they can smoke, they simply do, and non-smokers and pregnant women are so considerate, they say nothing most of the time.
The benefits that many countries with anti-smoking legislation have witnessed, such as lower percentages of smokers, better overall health, cleaner indoor air, fewer smoking related diseases, lower expenditure on ventilation at F&B venues and longer life spans, are simply not worth it. The only thing that speaks is a quick dollar. Why wait for smokers to adapt to the law? Non-smokers, children and pregnant women can just go up in smoke, just like Law 174 has. Disrespect of the law is a microcosm of the macrocosm. It’s one of the reasons why it will take Lebanon forever to become a state that protects its citizens. And in this case it’s mostly the citizens who are to blame.
Jasmina Najjar is a conceptual copywriter, journalist, and communication skills instructor at the American University of Beirut