Translated from a poster in Jordan: “Smoking for a long period of time affects marital relations.”
I’m not “blowing smoke” when I rave about Amman. No need, because Amman generates enough smoke on its own. This city rivals onions in making eyes water. Blame diesel fuel. Trucks, cars, buses blast chewy plumes of black exhaust. Heavy equipment on uncontrolled worksites add to the smog. Now introduce the smokers of cigarettes, cigars and arghileh.
Smoking’s entrenched in Arab culture. (My doctor lit up during our consult.) Cabbies puff with abandon, businessmen chainsmoke through meetings. Tobacco’s cheap in Jordan, a virtual give-away. A pack of smokes costs under 3 bucks (compared to $8 in NYC, $12 in Dublin). Hookah – or hubbly-bubbly – is an essential part of Ammanian café culture; patrons flock to restaurants offering unique settings for enjoying the pipe. Arghileh is on most menus.
In 2005, Jordan and Egypt ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a treaty aimed at nipping tobacco use . Follow-on action has been at a slow drag. Jordan’s Public Health Law incorporated anti-smoking controls in 2008, but enforcement didn’t start until 2009. Smoking was banned in fast-food restaurants in 2010, but other businesses in the public realm were given a grace period to adapt. Smoking is now taboo in all public areas. Airport terminals in Cairo and Amman are no-smo-zones: but smoke rings their entry points (drivers, passengers, meeters and greeters cluster outside to light up).
Non-compliance can result in fines, but enforcement is problematic.
In August, to comply with WHO treaty obligations, packaging on cigarettes sold in Jordan and Egypt will feature vivid photos of smoking health risks. It’s a big step for countries where public discussion on the evils of tobacco is nearly nonexistent.
Anti-smoking campaigns are timid in this slice of the globe. Smoking in developed countries declined in the ‘90s, but the American Cancer Society says it grew 8.6 percent in the Middle East.
Lebanon leads in the smoking Olympics: a breathtaking 58.8% light up daily. Over 60% of Egyptian men use tobacco (no reliable statistics for women) whereas fewer than 25% of American men smoke. The National Jordanian Anti-Smoking Society asserts that 21% of students aged 13-18 smoke cigarettes or hookah, despite it being illegal to sell tobacco products to kids! Jordanians spend half a billion US dollars annually on tobacco. This, in a nation where 25% of households earn less than $6,000 per year.
“The objective of the ban is to maintain public health,” said Jordanian Health Ministry spokesperson Hatem Azruie. “Non-smokers have the right to breathe clean air.” The ministry offers free consultations and nicotine substitutes to city smokers who are trying to kick the habit, and plans to expand the program to rural locations to help smokers quit throughout the Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s Ministry of Health released new warning labels featuring a coughing child, a cartoon fetus, and a limp cigarette implying impotence. The accompanying Arabic messages advise:
“Smoking around pregnant women harms the fetus and causes miscarriage.’
“Smoking affects children – protect your children from smoking.”
“I would like to quit but I just can’t,” said Osama Sabri Mohammed, a 39-year-old civil servant, between cigarette drags outside his Cairo office. “This one specifically will have an effect on Egyptians, since we’re really concerned about that,” he said, awkwardly tapping the image of the limp cigarette. A stack of studies, including a 2003 Tulane University report, have proven smoking to be a major cause of erectile disfunction.
Warnings that link tobacco with premature death have been shown as ineffectual, as health researchers concluded that most Egyptians perceive death as “inevitable”. Emphasizing negative impacts such as diminished sexual performance is expected to provide new motivation to kick the habit, especially among young smokers. “We need something to give smokers a shock,” said Dr. Mohammed Mehrez, head of the Egyptian tobacco control department. Wide cultural acceptance of die-hard smoking presents real challenges to these campaigns.
I don’t smoke. But I can empathize. See there’s no easy substitute for the habit. I applaud this somewhat grisly/yet kinda comical effort to curb smoking, but will it work? History shows people simply ignore warning labels. Or maybe a new niche market will arise: custom covers for cigarette packs to mask the offending images – monogrammed, or sporting a favorite team logo – call it an iSmoke? – maybe coming soon to a mall near you.
(Note: Images Egyptian Ministry of Health)