The proposed tobacco control law being mulled by the Lebanese Parliamentary Administration and Justice Committee has stirred debate between health-minded civil society activists, lobbyists from the tobacco and advertising industries keen to protect their commercial interests and a public skeptical of how serious the government is about enforcing any real tobacco control policy.
Arguments have covered not only health concerns but also Lebanon’s economy, asking whether or not the country can afford to lose the cash raised by the tobacco industry, specifically in the agricultural, hospitality and advertising sectors.
The controversial legislation would be surprisingly strict compared to the current law, calling for a ban on smoking in indoor public places including bars and restaurants, forbidding advertising of all tobacco-related products and insisting on pictorial warning labels on cigarette packs equivalent to 40 percent of the packaging size.
Proposed as a series of amendments to a draft law from 2006, this version revisits the country’s stance on tobacco following its commitment to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international treaty that Lebanon signed in 2004 and ratified the next year. The FCTC arose as a global response to scientific data, albeit from the 1960s, which revealed the gravity of the health risks associated with tobacco use and is the treaty that prompted tobacco control legislation across the world.
Implementation of the draft tobacco control law would allow Lebanon to catch-up on its FCTC obligations, as the country has already missed the 2008 compliance deadline for implementing larger warning labels, the 2009 deadline to ban advertising and the 2010 target to ban smoking in indoor public places.
According to George Saade, program coordinator at the health ministry’s National Tobacco Control Program (NTCP), the tentative deadline for parliamentary approval of a national tobacco control policy is May 31, coincidentally “World No Tobacco Day.”
A study released last month by the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) Tobacco Control Research Group — authored by Jad Chaaban, Nadia Naamani and Nisreen Salti — has quantified a number of previously undocumented tobacco-related figures.
For starters, the study reports that 40.3 percent of Lebanese are smokers. With cigarette consumption reaching an estimated rate of 12.4 packs per person per month, Lebanon also has one of the highest overall consumption rates in the world. The figure is three times that of Syria, and 12 times that of Singapore.
Looking at the overall benefits to the economy, the net revenue from tobacco is estimated at $271 million, taking into account tax revenues, subsidies to Lebanon’s 24,000 tobacco farmers, advertising, revenues from licensing and all other net gains for the government, international tobacco companies, distributors and retailers, and the Regie du Tabac et Tombacs — the state-run entity under the Ministry of Finance, which oversees Lebanon’s tobacco industry.
When evaluating overall costs to the economy, the sum includes health care costs, productivity loss, environmental costs due to forest fires and street waste clean-up, totaling $326.7 million, around 1.1 percent of Lebanon’s GDP. This figure is relatively high; in Egypt, where smoking prevalence is also high, the costs represent 0.7 percent of GDP.
The balance of tobacco’s revenue and costs leaves the country with a net loss of some $55.4 million. The real figure could be even higher since the study excluded costs related to regular exposure to second-hand smoke, as well as excluding many smoking related diseases due to a lack of sufficient data.
“What is obvious is that Lebanon’s economy is losing money on smoking,” said Chaaban.
According to Public Health Researcher Jade Khalife at the Ministry of Health’s NTCP, international data strongly supports the economic assertion that employers will benefit from increased tobacco control in the form of improved employee productivity, reduced hiring costs and lower building maintenance costs. Khalife raised the example of Ireland, where smoke-free environments saved employers the equivalent of 1.1 to 1.7 percent of GDP.
In the hospitality sector, studies conducted in other countries generally show that banning smoking in indoor public places either does not affect, or actually increases, revenue for restaurants and bars. In Ireland, the first European country to ban smoking in enclosed workspaces in 2004, a study in the Irish Journal of Medical Science found that a year after the ban was enacted customer numbers in Dublin pubs had increased by 11 percent.
More recently in Turkey, hospitality sector revenue rose some 5 percent in 2009 following a public indoor ban. And in Lebanon, apart from the fact that the majority of Lebanese are non-smokers, a recent survey done by the NTCP underlined that restaurants could also see increased business from a ban, with 56 percent of Lebanese smokers reporting that they are bothered by smoke in restaurants, and 98 percent recognizing that second-hand smoke is harmful to them.
“In our bars and restaurants 60 to 70 percent of the people are smoking,” estimated Gemmayze Development Committee member Paddy Cochrane, who is coincidentally Irish-Lebanese. “After experiencing the ban in Ireland and being a non-smoker myself, I think it’s a fantastic idea, but as a bar owner, I’m not there to tell people what they can and cannot do. But if the government passes a law, it’s different.”
Although restaurants and bars would lose money made off of the promotion and sale of cigarettes in their venues, the impact is negligible, added Cochrane.
No more Marlboro man
The advertising sector also stands to lose from the proposed legislation. According to AUB’s study, tobacco advertising comprised 4.5 percent of total advertising spending in Lebanon in 2009, a figure roughly coinciding with an estimate of 4 percent provided by the President of the Lebanon Chapter of the International Advertising Association (IAA) George Jabbour. Research company IPSOS reported that tobacco advertising made up 1 percent ($7.2 million) of the total media advertising, excluding ‘below the line’ advertising, such as promotions, handouts and events – which the industry would rather see exempt from any ban.
According to Jabbour, advertisers need time adjust to the change.
“We need a grace period. We have employees that we cannot just throw away. We need to restructure,” he said.
“No one is saying it should be stopped as a legislation. But we don’t want this legislation to just be propaganda. We don’t want the advertising industry to be the scapegoat,” said Jabour, concerned that ban or no ban, smokers will carry on regardless, leaving advertisers to carry the can.
Skeptics argue that smoking is as much a part of the local culture as general disregard for the law. In focus group studies conducted by the AUB Tobacco Control Research Group, even researchers in favor of the policy had to admit that the most frequent concern about the policy implementation cited by participants was the willingness of the general public to abide by a law, even if it passes. Last month NTCP’s Saade released a statement saying that fines for breaking the law may reach $663 for establishments and $33 for individual smokers. But who would implement this remains undetermined as yet.
More recently, a modification of the draft law regarding the public ban was introduced to provide exemptions for public establishments that make separate smoking and non-smoking areas. This move drew sharp criticism from the AUB Mechanical Engineering Department, which “strongly advises against any such exemption because it has been shown through numerous scientific studies that partitioning indoor spaces into smoking and non-smoking areas does not work, even when advanced ventilation and filtration technologies are used.”
A similar attempt to impose separated areas in Spain failed and the country is now considering a complete ban, after many establishments already invested in redesigning their businesses.
Applying policy… maybe
The AUB Tobacco Control Research Group also strongly warned that “multinational tobacco companies have consciously thwarted previous policy attempts to limit the reach of this harmful product… The industry should not be allowed to weaken tobacco control policy.”
While the NTCP estimates that 3,500 Lebanese die each year due to tobacco use, the public health aspects of the tobacco control law, and even the economic ones, have thus far been trumped by political interests in the halls of government. Lebanon’s three largest tobacco importers, Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan International Tobacco, declined the opportunity to contribute to this article.