Smoking has become the norm in downtown Beirut.
Last month, a group of women activists posing as pregnant women with faces covered with masks, staged a protest in Downtown Beirut against the delay by a parliamentary committee to finalize a long awaited law to ban smoking in closed public spaces and end unregulated cigarette advertisements, the Daily Star reports.
The demonstration, organized by the League of Independent Activists (IndyACT), is part of a larger national campaign in collaboration with the American University of Beirut and the Tobacco Free Initiative to promote the drafting of a modern law for tobacco control.
A number of factors are responsible for the stalemate. According to a release issued by IndyACT “although tobacco companies are the major obstacle to the endorsement of a new tobacco control law, the Administration and Justice Committee has been passing off part of its responsibility to the Health and Finance Ministries.”
In addition to tobacco industry lobbyists, and an inefficient political system, the mass media organizations are affiliated to different political parties and derive substantial revenues form tobacco and alcohol advertising.
Meanwhile, anyone who has visited Lebanon in the last decade is a witness that smoking has become a widely accepted social norm. Starting from the time one lands in Beirut Hariri airport where airport security men light up their cigarettes in front of “no smoking” signs, to a visit to any government office, hotel, restaurant or along the strip of pubs in Gemmayze, smoke inhalation has become an inescapable part of every day life.
The statistics are alarming: According to latest estimates from American University of Beirut, more than a third of Lebanese adults are smokers. Water- pipe smoking prevalence among youth is even more than that of cigarettes with 64.5 percent of males and 54.6% of females smoking on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, 78.9% of children in Lebanon are exposed to smoke at home whereas 74.9% are exposed to it outside the home.
Interestingly, one would expect decreased smoking among the middle and upper classes, but research shows that the majority of the young Lebanese who smoked belonged to the upper middle class while cigar smoking is still perceived as a status symbol.
Historically, Lebanon signed the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2004. Earlier, in 1995, a ministerial decree was passed related to the dangers of second-hand smoke, “prohibiting smoking in places such as hospitals, infirmaries, pharmacies, theaters, public transport services, health clubs and all schools, universities and elevators.”
However, according to the National Tobacco Control Program website, the decree has no mechanisms for implementation or punishments for failure to do so. The current proposed law, an update to the ’95 decree, will therefore require a big stick approach to implementation, otherwise it will also be irrelevant.
As politicians continue to debate and delay laws, changing reality and deeply engrained habits will not be easy, especially when going against mainstream norms and institutions. However, experience from around the world shows that policy interventions, in combination with public debate and promotion of scientific evidence, can influence attitudes and drive cultural change.
In the end, while the Lebanese public health situation remains a sobering one, Lebanon’s active civil society’s perseverance and call for clean air and a more sustainable lifestyle gives reason for optimism.
For more resources, see the Stop Public Smoking in Lebanon Facebook page