Lights Out: Turkey is Next to Ban Smoking

Lights Out: Turkey is Next to Ban Smoking

The French did it. The Italians did it. Now tobacco-loving Turkey is betting it can go smoke-free too. A sweeping new law takes effect on Sunday, banning smoking in bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants across the country, the world’s fourth-largest tobacco producer, where 22 million people — including half the adult male population — puff away on a regular basis.

The ban has strong political backing from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a fervent anti-smoker who launched the campaign against smoking in 2007 by saying it was as important as the fight against terrorism, no small charge in a country which has fought a bloody two-decade war against Kurdish separatists.

Part of the reason Turkey adopted the new legislation was to comply with requirements set out by the European Union, which the country is seeking to join. But the law also dovetails with the Islamic-rooted government’s deep distaste for tobacco and alcohol. None of Erdogan’s ministers smoke, and previous governments had been trying to introduce similar laws for years, only to be stymied by strong pressure from tobacco lobbyists. Turks spend almost $25 billion a year on cigarettes.

The government’s zeal to get people to stub out their cigarettes is not without historical precedent. Shortly after tobacco was introduced to the Ottoman Empire in 1601, Sultan Murat IV banned the use and sale of tobacco — on penalty of death — after clerical decree. That ban, however, was repealed a little over a decade later, and smoking quickly became a status symbol, “one of four cushions of pleasure,” according to one historian.

Despite the prevalence of smoking in Turkish society, recent polls show overwhelming public support for the ban — around 90%. “There’s been an amazingly quick cultural shift,” says Sylviane Ratte, a tobacco control expert who monitors Turkey for the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease . “People see it as a health issue. The main concern is that the ban be equally enforced.” To that end, the Health Ministry has trained a 5,000-person task force to patrol establishments and dole out fines to anyone caught lighting up. For now, smokers who defy the ban will face a paltry $45 fine, but that’s due to go up in 2010. The law is harsher on establishments — they face an initial $500 fine, which increases exponentially with every repeat offense.

But even some of those who back the ban think the government is taking it too far. In Istanbul’s busy waterfront Tophane district, popular for its nargile — or water pipe — caf├ęs, dozens of patrons sit on candy-colored beanbags, puffing on glass pipes, impervious to the impending change as they fill the air with the scent of fruity tobacco. “This is part of our culture,” says cafe owner Ali Unal. “I understand not smoking indoors. But they say you cannot smoke even outside if you’re under an umbrella. I don’t see how they will enforce this.” Enforcement is likely to be even harder outside the big cities. Smoking is a way of life in rural Turkey, where men spend much of their free time in hazy coffeehouses, playing backgammon.

But in other places where smoking was once a national pastime, compliance with the ban is high: 97% in New York City, 98.5% in Italy and 94% in Ireland, according to the U.S-based Global Smokefree Partnership. “There will be a transition period, which lasts several months, while people realize the cultural norm has shifted,” says The Union’s Ratte. “But we have the example of France to go by. Nobody thought it was possible, but after the cut-off date, the norm changed overnight.”

Turkey’s new non-smoking law makes it only the second developing country after Uruguay to institute a comprehensive ban. That is significant — according to the World Health Organization, developing nations will account for 80% of the world’s tobacco-related deaths over the next decade, as smoking rates in developed countries fall and tobacco companies step up their presence in other markets to compensate. “People in the region are watching Turkey closely,” says Ratte, who is due to take her anti-smoking campaign to Egypt next. “It could become a regional role model, like Ireland was for Europe or New York for the rest of the U.S.”

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