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A cafe in Beirut. Many businesses in Lebanon are ignoring the smoking ban or bending the rules. Anwar Amro / AFP
A cafe in Beirut. Many businesses in Lebanon are ignoring the smoking ban or bending the rules. Anwar Amro / AFP

Lebanon's smoking ban bad for health of its hospitality sector

Lebanon's anti-smoking legislation has been a burden on an already crippled hospitality sector and the nail in many a business coffin.

The late journalist Christopher Hitchens said that he liked travelling to countries with either "too little or too much law and order". He knew Lebanon well and, were he still with us, he would have no doubt been amused by a statement made last week by Fadi Abboud, Lebanon's much-maligned tourism minister, in which he said that the state had been "unable to control the smoking ban on New Year's Eve as there were not enough police". He added: "There were lots of tourists, especially those coming from Turkey, and we had to take care of security and protection matters."

Hitchens, a committed smoker who died of esophageal cancer, would have appreciated the irony, but Mr Abboud was merely throwing out political chaff as he and his fellow ministers deal with the fallout of a clumsy and potentially disastrous smoking ban, which came into effect on September 1.

Because, while it has been welcomed by the anti-smoking lobby and people who simply don't want to inhale second-hand cigar smoke when they eat, the legislation has been a burden on an already crippled hospitality sector and the nail in many a business coffin.

"The smoking ban killed us," says David Bou Dargham, the owner of the once-popular Beirut restaurant Eatalian - get it? - that shut down last week.

"Business was already down 30 per cent because of the terrible summer with all the security threats. Then the ban was imposed and business fell by another 30 per cent. We had no choice."

Mr Bou Dargham has given up investing in Lebanon, for the time being at least, and is focusing on projects in Saudi Arabia and Erbil in northern Iraq with his other business interest, the regional fast food brand Caspar and Gambini's.

It is hardly surprising, given the extraordinary difficult climate in which to operate, that many businesses are simply ignoring the smoking ban or bending the rules. For some, it makes more financial sense just to pay the fines, while others have set up ad hoc no smoking areas and are paying off the authorities to turn a blind eye. Now winter is upon us, with little opportunity for outdoor dining, and if there is no immediate review of the law, what is left of Lebanon's hospitality industry will be starved of financial oxygen.

"The private sector is the engine that drives this country," says Mr Bou Dargham. "We don't ask for a lot because we have learned to get on with it. But the smoking ban could have been introduced gradually. There could have been compulsory no smoking areas and a time frame for a total ban. That's what they did in Europe and the West."

The government knew the private sector had been mauled during the summer. It could have taken the decision to either suspend the law to give businesses the chance to adapt or amend it so the country didn't have to go cold turkey overnight. It must now bite the bullet and modify the law in way that satisfies the anti-smoking lobby and keeps businesses open.

Ziad Kamel, a local restaurateur and member of Lebanon's association of restaurant, cafe and nightclub owners, has been lobbying the government to see sense. A committed anti-smoker, he supports anti-smoking legislation, but argues that there needs to be some wiggle room for those businesses - in particular cigar lounges, shisha cafes, Lebanese restaurants and nightclubs, where smoking is a central theme - to operate.

"We have a tough law in a 'soft' state, where no one even pays a parking ticket, whereas in Dubai, which is a 'hard' state, they have a well-thought out law that allows establishments to apply for a smoking licence that imposes a degree of regulation and which brings in extra state revenue."

Mr Kamel says that only 700 out of Lebanon's 6,000 hospitality venues urgently need this option and without it they will go bust.

"What's crazy it that there is nothing in the law that actually encourages people to stop smoking," he says. "The packet still costs US$2 [Dh7]. That's the real problem."

 

Michael Karam is a Beirut based freelance journalist

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