BEIRUT: Health Minister Jamil Jabak has pledged to “reactivate” a law that prohibits smoking in enclosed public spaces, almost seven years after the law’s enforcement went up in smoke. Jabak told The Daily Star that his initiative will be launched Saturday, during an event to observe World No Tobacco Day, officially on May 31.
The project will “reactivate” Tobacco Control Law 174, which bans all forms of smoking - including nargileh - in “all enclosed public places, workplaces and means of public transportation.”
Law 174 was endorsed by 126 out of 128 lawmakers in Parliament in August 2011, and went into effect the following year.
However, implementation waned just a few months later, and even more after then-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced his support for the law’s relaxation in 2015. Smoking in public remains widespread.
The Health Minister said he wants to prohibit the sales of cigarettes and nargilehs for minors below 18.
“Every cafe that sells nargileh to children under 18, I will fine it for the first [violation] and I will shut it for the second,” Jabak said.
The minister will also require cigarette packaging to have pictorial warnings of the effects of smoking. The minister also plans to support NGOs’ efforts to raise awareness on the effects of smoking, especially in houses.
The Tobacco Free Initiative, a local organization that worked on the law, will not give up on ensuring its implementation, according to Marina Moukhaiber, a board member at TFI in charge of relations with the Lebanese government.
“We are now joining forces [with those who] are with the law’s implementation so we can activate the law together,” Moukhaiber said.
She said Jabak was cooperating with the organization and determined to enforce the law.
Jabak said the law would be implemented with the Interior Ministry and municipalities, and that he will file a draft law to raise the prices of tobacco.
A source at the Interior Ministry said they had not yet received any information from the Health Ministry regarding the initiative to enforce the law.
MP Yassine Jaber, who heads a committee in charge of following up on the implementation of laws, told The Daily Star that the committee had discussed Law 174 at a session earlier this month.
Jaber said his committee was discussing the possibility of amending the law to designate smoking and nonsmoking sections in big restaurants, and for small restaurants to declare themselves either smoking or nonsmoking. “Then I would know that this is a smoking restaurant so I would not go to it,” he added.
Jaber said this would be a middle ground, instead of cracking down on all restaurants where people smoke indoors.
The Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night Clubs and Patisseries in Lebanon released a statement Thursday decrying Law 174, saying it does not take socio-economic and tourism factors into consideration in its current form.
The statement said the Syndicate had drafted an amendment to the law, which would allow businesses that want to continue to permit smoking indoors to file for an indoor smoking license at the Tourism Ministry. The business owner would have to pay annual fees for the license, between $2,000 and $4,000, and commit to a ventilation system.
“The suggested amendments would ... first enforce the law ... and ensure yearly income to the Treasury,” the statement said.
According to Jaber, the committee was still discussing the possible amendments, and no official drafts have been submitted.
However, Moukhaiber argued that if Law 174 was amended, it would “fall apart.”
“Everyone agreed at the time on this law. ... We can discuss its amendment, but if this amendment was enforced, it would not work,” she said, referring to the amendment proposed by the Syndicate.
“It is like dividing a swimming pool and telling a kid they can pee in the peeing section of the pool. ... It’s the same concept,” she said.
Jabak also opposes amending the law, saying that if it were amended, restaurants would be required to have posters that say, “Children and elderly people are not allowed in because of the smoke.”
Moukhaiber suggested that the law could be implemented in its current form gradually, but without amending it.
Jaber said that if the law was applied as is, amending the law would not be necessary. “The government must make a decision and have security personnel on the ground [to enforce it],” he said.
Ghazi Zaatari, chair of the World Health Organization’s Study Group on Tobacco Product Regulation, also rejected making amendments to the law. He told The Daily Star that the point of the law was to limit the consumption of tobacco, since “cancer rates in Lebanon exceed the expected rate for our population size.”
“We have the highest smoking rate in the region. [The current situation] is a crime,” Zaatari said.