Old habits die hard

Smoking ban struggling in Lebanon

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In September last year the Lebanese government banned smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars. As the months have ticked by the ban has increasingly been ignored, with many of the country’s establishments thinking up ‘ingenious’ ways to avoid implementing it. With seemingly little political will or capability to enforce the law, is it time to declare the ban a failure?

Not stubbed out

When Law 174 came into force in September, there was little optimism that it would be properly enforced. The Tourism Minister Fady Abboud, one of four ministers responsible for imposing it, had publicly declared himself opposed and, with more than one-third of Lebanon’s population smokers — according to a study by the American University of Beirut — many expected the law to join hundreds of other that are technically on the statute but not properly enforced.

5 ways establishments are getting around the smoking ban

1. Plastic Fantastic

By putting plastic covers up as a way to keep the heat in, bars and restaurants have managed to turn whole sections of their gardens into covered, warm, smoking areas.

2. Look, the window’s open

Sitting next to a big open window does not make you outside, but a number of Beirut establishments seem to think differently

3. Not us, guvnor

Some restaurants and bars have alleged that they have a temporary exemption to the law. They don’t. No such exemptions exist.

4. Private club

Under Lebanese law, private members clubs are exempt from the law. You may notice that beyond a certain point in the evening a bar’s door will swing shut and the proprietor will crack open a cigarette behind the counter. That means you are now in a private club.

5. Law, what law?

The most common technique, however, is just plain denial. Bars and restaurants owners ignore the law and have even been known to get aggressive to those that challenge them.

Yet it was initially rather successful. The vast majority of restaurants and bars set up outdoor smoking areas and a hotline was established to report those institutions that ignored it. Civil society campaigners succeeded in keeping the issue in the media and by early December across the country there was a 90 percent compliance rate, according to the Tobacco Free Initiative (TFI).

Since the New Year, however, that rate has fallen rapidly, with the TFI estimating that just 40 percent of bars and restaurants are still fully imposing the law. In bars increasingly people are again lighting up inside and people have even allegedly been abused for criticizing bar owners who allow it to continue.

Critics of the government point to statements made in December by Abboud and Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel suggesting that over the festive period implementation of the laws would be relaxed. “Since the New Year we have had no compliance, especially in narguileh (shisha) cafes and nightclubs,” Rania Baroud, vice-president of the TFI, told Executive.

Ali Fakhry from the environment NGO IndyAct agrees that willingness to impose the law has waned. “The political will to apply the law has been decreasing, not increasing. We are calling on the Minister of Interior to increase the number of police who are touring around applying the law, and the touristic police,” he said.

On top of ministerial ambivalence towards the law, the lack of fines has arguably exacerbated non-compliance. While Abboud has stressed that more than 1,000 establishments have been given LL3 million ($2,000) fines, the number that have paid is significantly lower. This is due to a several month time lag between the fines being handed out and court appearances. Baroud estimates that only 200 cases have actually made it to court as yet and is urging the judiciary to speed up the process.

Calling it quits

The falling compliance rates suggest that if Lebanon is to enforce the law it would likely require significant new resources. There are many who feel it is time to call it quits.

Paul Ariss, president of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Pastries in Lebanon, feels that the law was imposed without significant consideration of Lebanese culinary culture — with meals tending to be longer events coinciding with cigarettes and shisha.

He argues that while revenue in restaurants that sell European food has not been badly hit by the ban, those who focus on Lebanese food have struggled, with revenues falling by up to 70 percent. “60 percent of the Lebanese population is Muslim, of those around 70 percent do not drink alcohol in restaurants,” he said. “You sit for two or three hours with mezze. If they don’t drink alcohol and they don’t have narguileh they are not interested in going to restaurants.”

Ariss argues that Lebanon’s resources could be better focused on dealing with the deteriorating security situation and believes that many establishments will not comply, nomatter how strict the laws are. “The owners have decided to boycott the law. They will boycott the ban and to pay the fines,” he said.

Officially the government remains committed to the law. On Tuesday the four ministers involved met to offer their support to an increased crackdown on those establishments that disobey. But Fakhry believes that the responsibility does not lie merely with the government, but instead with Lebanese attitudes to breaking the law.

“This is not a decree by a minister, this is a law that has been worked on for three years and voted in the Lebanese Parliament, to issue a law which is constitutionally similar to law selling drugs and other illegal activities,” he said. “It is the responsibility of the civil society and the normal citizens is to impose the law… if we allow the owners of Falamanki [restaurant in Sodeco] to break the law then why don’t we tell the drug sellers just to pay a fine and carry on?”

Wandering into some Beirut bars and restaurants, you could be forgiven for thinking that the smoking ban had been abandoned altogether. But Baroud takes heart from the long struggles of European nations to impose the ban. “I am very optimistic because it has been similar even in France and other countries. In France it took six years for them to properly apply the law, in Geneva [Switzerland] it has been two years they couldn’t apply the law. What we are going through is normal,” she says. Yet Lebanon is not like France and, in a country where the rule of law remains only partially applied, such optimism may be misplaced.

Joe Dyke

Joe has extensive experience covering the Syrian crisis, oil and gas, and Lebanese government and regulatory authorities, among other topics. He was Executive's online editor from 2012 to 2014, and led the Economics & Policy section from 2013 to 2014.