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Smoking Ban Plan Sparks Mixed Response

(16-Jan-09)
By IWPR
The Syrian government plans to ban smokers from lighting up in enclosed public places in a bid to curb rising numbers of tobacco-related deaths, the health ministry announced last month.



The ban, to be imposed in all shops, offices, bars, restaurants and bus stations, will affect the roughly five million Syrians – a massive 20 per cent of the entire population – who smoke at least once a day, according to surveys by the Syrian Centre for Tobacco Studies.



Smokers caught breaking the rules will face steep fines and the possibility of a jail sentence, said Bassam Abu al-Thahab, director of the health ministry’s department for combating smoking.



The draft law, which follows a July 2008 prohibition on smoking in government buildings, will include cigars, pipes and even the traditional water pipe or nargile – a major attraction in many Damascus bars and restaurants.



Once the supporting legislation is passed, health ministry officials plan to gradually bring in the ban over the period until 2013.



The move is intended to prevent loss of life from smoking-related illnesses, such as respiratory and heart disease, and also to stop young people taking up the habit.



“Unfortunately, the rate of smoking among younger Syrians continues to rise, and [conditions such as] asthma and heart disease are becoming more prevalent,” said Damascus-based cardiologist Dr Muhammad Shahrour.



Omar Abdullah, a 33-year-old who works for a trading firm in Damascus, is looking forward to the ban, saying it is long overdue.



English teacher Ibrahim Mousa agreed, saying, “I support this decision 100 per cent, because smokers often behave in a selfish manner in public places. They have no consideration for the children, elderly or sick people who have to breathe in the smoke around them.”



Not everyone welcomes the ban, though. Restaurant owners and staff, in particular, are concerned that it could harm their businesses.



“Most restaurants make the majority of their profits from the nargile,” said Samir al-Abd, who works in a Damascus restaurant. “When the law takes effect, both patrons and restaurant owners will suffer.”



Some said that before tackling smoking, the authorities should first take steps to address other pollutants.



“Before the Syrian government bans the people from smoking, it should find a solution to the poisonous fumes emitted by cars and cement factories every day,” said Muhammad Ali, a 24-year-old economics student at the University of Damascus.



Others accused the government of hypocrisy, pointing out that it continues to reap high profits from selling tobacco.



A government-owned tobacco monopoly produces more than half the cigarettes sold throughout Syria, and controls imports of the rest. Last May, Syrian officials celebrated the creation of a new 15 million US dollar factory with the capacity to produce more than 600,000 tons of tobacco a year.



“If the Syrian government really cared about people’s health, it would stop producing tobacco,” said 26-year-old Muhanned al-Khayat.



(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)