x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tea and no sympathy for smoking ban

While regulations are brought in to try and improve public health, activists say officials will find it difficult to enforce the new smoking ban.

Retired men play Okey and smoke in Mutlu Tea House at Kasimpasa, a working-class district of Istanbul.
Retired men play Okey and smoke in Mutlu Tea House at Kasimpasa, a working-class district of Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // As Senol Durmus sees it, a new law that takes effect in Turkey this coming Sunday tries to separate two things that cannot exist without each other: tea and cigarettes. "It will not work," Mr Durmus said this week during a game of cards with friends in a tea house in Kasimpasa, a working class neighbourhood on Istanbul's European side. Smoking furiously, the men discussed a ban on cigarettes, cigars and pipes in all tea houses, cafes, bars and restaurants in Turkey that becomes law on July 19. For many Turks, a visit to the tea house without a pack of cigarettes is simply inconceivable.

"Tea and cigarettes belong together," Mr Durmus stated, as his friends nodded in approval. The anti-smoking regulation is part of a law that was passed by parliament in Ankara in January last year. Since May 2008, smoking has been prohibited in public buildings, public transport vehicles, taxis and shopping malls. Tea houses and restaurants were given a grace period of 18 months by parliament. Now, time is up. "Next weekend, Turkey will wake up to a smoke-free day," the Star newspaper said.

But it may not be that easy. As with many reform laws in Turkey, there is much discussion about whether the new regulation will actually be enforced. In a country with more than 20 million smokers in a population of 70m people and tea houses in every little village, authorities are facing a challenge. The law threatens fines of 69 Lira (Dh165) against smokers and up to 5,600 Lira (Dh13,400) against owners of tea houses, bars and restaurants that ignore the ban. However, anti-smoking activists say that even existing non-smoking regulations are ignored regularly. Checks by health officials this year had shown that 90 per cent of shopping malls allowed smokers to light up discreetly in one or two designated areas, despite the ban that has been in force since last year, Ubeyd Korbey, president of the War against Cigarettes Association pressure group, told Star.

Not everyone thinks the new ban makes sense. Mr Durmus, who is 39 and works as a municipal parking attendant, said he had been smoking up to a pack of cigarettes every day for the last 20 years. "I am all for a smoking ban in places with families or children," he said. "But not in tea houses." Others around the table in the Mutlu tea house in Kasimpasa, a traditional meeting place for men from Turkey's Black Sea coast who have migrated to Istanbul, agreed with Mr Durmus.

"It's OK not to smoke in a shopping mall because you only spend half an hour or maybe an hour there," said one man, Adem Safak. "It is easy to go without a cigarette for a short time but here, it's different." Mr Durmus and his friends said they meet almost daily at the Mutlu tea house to pass the time, play cards - and smoking. "They did this without asking us," another card player, Refik Pece, said in reference to the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and a prominent non-smoker, who spent his youth in Kasimpasa and has visited the Mutlu tea house several times, according to the regulars here.

"If they want to ban smoking, they should ban it everywhere," Mr Pece said. According to the new law, people can still smoke outside and in open-air bars and restaurants. Open-air sports facilities can designate smoking areas. "We will enforce the ban so we don't get fined," said Yahya Yildiz, the owner of another tea house around the corner from the Mutlu in Kasimpasa. "But it will be very hard." Mr Yildiz said he would mount warning signs on all walls. Until then, a page ripped from a newspaper and pasted to a column in the tea house, the headline calling on Turks to "make use of the ban and quit smoking", will have to do. Judging by the smoke-filled air, not many visitors had taken that advice to heart.

But some think everything will change on Sunday. "People will comply with the ban," said Yusuf Kurt, 60, a guest in Mr Yildiz's tea house. "All this will be trash," he said, lifting an ashtray from the table. Mr Kurt said he had stopped smoking after he met a fellow smoker who was in very poor health during a stay in hospital. "But when I got out, I started again. No one smokes because it's so much fun," he said, adding that he was finding it hard to stop.

Mr Yildiz gave up the habit four years ago. On the smoking ban, he said: "It is good from the point of view of health but it will affect us (as a business)." According to the Turkish Federation of Tea House and Buffet Owners, the country's 250,000 tea houses employ about one million people. The smoking ban could lead to bankruptcies and rising unemployment in the sector, the organisation said in a statement. It called for the smoking ban to be lifted for tea houses or at least to be postponed for another two years. The group also suggested the introduction of smoking and non-smoking areas in tea houses.

In a poll published last week, 90 per cent of Turks and even 69 per cent of smokers supported the ban. Even some of Istanbul's tea house regulars think it is a good idea. "It is beautiful, smoking should be banned," said Mehmet Tuysuz, who was playing Okey, a kind of dominoes, with friends in the Mutlu tea house. Mr Tuysuz said he gave up smoking after a heart operation. "Go, smoke at home," he told his friends.

tseibert@thenational.ae