When Law 174 took effect last September it was expected to be implemented for a couple months and then fade into memory, following the trajectory of many past Lebanese laws. Four months later, despite certain violators and a lax holiday period, the smoking ban is still being widely implemented, said activists and a member of the restaurant syndicate, though no official statistics are available.
“Everyone is respecting the law [except for] very few restaurants who are trying to lead the campaign against it,” said Ali Fakhry—a smoker of both cigarettes and arguileh—who is with IndyACT, an independent coalition of activists.
Ziad Kamel is the treasurer of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants and a non-smoker. He said that while the syndicate feels the law is too extreme and wants it amended, it is still pushing for its implementation in all its venues.
But while Law 174 is being widely implemented, there are still many places ignoring it. Kamel explained that certain restaurants that thrive off of arguileh are the primary violators. “Arguileh cafes say to hell with the law. [Their options are to] either get a fine or ‘Shut my place down that I’ve been running for years and employed hundreds if not thousands of people,’” he said. Kamel said the syndicate responds in an understanding manner by telling the restaurant that it’s the owner’s decision.
But apart from arguileh places, Kamel said that the restaurant industry has not suffered. “All three of my venues [Angry Monkey, Amarres and Couqley, all in Beirut] are non-smoking, and it is true that places that banned smoking have not been affected.”
Future MP and head of the Parliament’s Health Committee Atef Majdalani admitted that the law had been better implemented just after passing but less so over the holiday period. “There has been some negligence on the part of [Tourism] Minister Fady Abboud in implementing the law,” Majdalani said.
One particular incident involved Majdalani’s fellow Future bloc MP, Khodr Habib, at the restaurant L’Auberge in the Cedars. The Facebook group “Law 174 – No Smoking Lebanon” exposed the MP by writing about the incident on its page. By Habib’s own admission, he smoked cigars while in the restaurant. Habib told NOW that “everyone in the restaurant was smoking” and that certain restaurants had a “special permit” over the holiday period.
A manager at L’Auberge, however, told NOW that Habib had been the first to light up his cigar. “We told him no smoking is allowed. He said he is part of the committee that made a law allowing smoking during the ten-day holiday period,” the manager said, adding that after Habib lit up the rest of the patrons joined in.
Kamel said that there was “no official declaration that stated [smoking would be allowed during the holiday period].”
“I am surprised by Khodr Habib’s act,” said Majdalani. “No one [in parliament] objected to the law or voiced reservations about it.” Majdalani added that nothing was passed to exempt restaurants from applying the smoking ban during the holiday period and that he would ask Habib why he acted as such when he next saw him. He also thanked Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil for standing by the law.
Activists agree that the Ministry of Tourism’s police force is not doing its part to enforce the law.
“If you call the [ministry’s] hotline [to report violations of Law 174] and they answer, they might not show up,” said Fakhry.
After testing the hotline multiple times last Friday to report restaurants violating Law 174 and being hung up on each time, NOW sent Minister Abboud an email and tweeted him. Monday morning the ministry followed up with two phone calls, one from an assistant to Abboud and one from the head of the Ministry of Tourism police force, who explained that the hotline was dealing with technical issues and promised to follow up on the violating restaurants. Abboud himself responded with a tweet urging all citizens to report infractions of Law 174. NOW has no evidence that there was any follow up by the ministry with any of the establishments reported, though one restaurant said the last time it saw an inspector was around three weeks ago.
“The minister of tourism only has [around] ten police to enforce this law. It can’t be enforced in a uniform basis across Lebanon,” said Kamel. He added that due to the lack of resources and Lebanon’s inability to enforce laws, “the whole positioning of [Law 174] has been moved from top to bottom.”
Rania Baroud, the vice president of Tobacco Free Initiative Lebanon, said that volunteers from Tobacco Control Citizens Watch were regularly phoning the ministry’s hotline, and that restaurants were being fined but, “no fine has been paid until now.” She called on Minister of Justice Shakib Qortbawi to push judges to issue the fines.
In spite of setbacks, activists remain optimistic about the law’s implementation. Baroud points to the example of France, where the law took six years to fully implement.
For Fakhry and others at IndyACT however, the law symbolizes more than just a smoke-free Lebanon but a Lebanon where the people actually have influence over their government.
“This was the first time civil society succeeded in passing a law in parliament,” Fakhry noted.
Additional reporting by Amani Hamad
Follow the author on Twitter @JustinSalhani