Lebanon: Counting Down to the Smoking Ban

During an anti-smoking campaign in ABC mall in Achrafieh earlier this year. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Monday, August 13, 2012

Tobacco companies and merchants in Lebanon are doing all they can to find holes in Lebanon’s new tobacco law, which is set to go into effect on September 3. Supermarkets and stores, for example, continue to advertise tobacco products despite the new restrictions.

Beirut - Although the law regulating the manufacturing, packaging, and advertising of tobacco products was ratified by parliament last September, and the decree limiting signs advertising the sale of tobacco products was passed on 25 January 2012, ads that promote smoking are still ubiquitous inside cooperatives and supermarkets.

The director general of the ministry of health, Walid Ammar, sent a letter to the Syndicate of Cooperative and Supermarket Owners on February 24 demanding that they adhere to the letter of the law in terms of a full ban on ads for tobacco products especially at cash registers.

Some of these places abided by the law but tobacco companies soon convinced them that they can put tobacco ads inside their stores under the pretext that they have presented a legal report to the ministry of economy and trade in this regard.

According to documents that Al-Akhbar obtained, international tobacco companies that control the decision-making process inside the Regie (the state-run tobacco monopoly in Lebanon) management tried very hard in the past few months to disable the effects of the decree governing advertising placards for tobacco products.

This decree allows vendors of wholesale tobacco products to put a placard or sign on the storefront of their establishment indicating that they are an authorized distributor by the Regie, as long as their permit number is clearly visible. They are banned however from putting any logo or brand names – whether for tobacco or other products – on the outer placard except for the Regie trademark.

Retail vendors are allowed to put a placard inside their store indicating that they sell tobacco products, but this placard should not be larger than the size of an A5 paper and should include the phrase “Tobacco Products are Sold Here,” printed in black against a plain white background.

The penalty for violating this decree which may reach 44 million Lebanese Lira (LL) (around $30,000) has not yet been applied, especially by ministry of economy inspectors, who have only issued warnings to establishment owners that put up tobacco ads inside their stores.

A petition signed by tens of wholesale tobacco merchants and sent to Minister of the Economy Nicolas Nahhas, shows that they resent the “arbitrary actions” taken by representatives of the ministries of health and economy in terms of notifying them to take down the smoking ads from wholesale and retail stores.

They claimed that these ads “include information that enables consumers to make the right decision regarding consuming tobacco products and that taking them down constitutes an infringement on consumer protection law and obstructs consumers’ ability to discern between legal and illegal products.”

This petition was attached to a report by the legal advisor of the Regie, attorney Joe Issa Khoury, who argued that “adding terms to the anti-smoking law which it did not originally entail is a flagrant violation of the law.”

Khoury tried in his report to play on terms included in article 12 of the anti-smoking law. He replaced the term “public spaces” with “public streets” in an attempt to disable the outright and final ad ban, stipulated in article 12, which bans advertisements “in any manner that allows people passing in public spaces to see them.”

Khoury also complained about the letter that the ministry of health sent to commercial establishment owners about banning advertisements over cash registers and argued that it violates the law. He pointed out that the Regie had previously explained that “the ban does not apply to ads and placards found inside stores.”

Faced with this big alliance of tobacco companies supported by the Regie management and the pressure exercised by wholesale merchants on the ministry of economy and trade, Nahhas turned to the the department for legislation and consultations at the ministry of justice. He asked it to give its opinion regarding the “legality of putting ads for smoking brands inside commercial establishments and stores based on the anti-smoking and consumer protection laws.”

Five days after the request was received, Judge Marie Therese al-Moushi issued an advisory opinion in three pages settling the controversy. The opinion was a slap in the face of tobacco companies and the Regie.

The most important part of the judge’s statement said that “the closed public places stipulated in the first article of the anti-smoking law are meant to be an example and not to be restrictive, which leads to the conclusion that the legislators aimed to include all closed places in their provisions. The report by the management and justice committee about this draft law considered the ban absolute for all advertisement and announcement methods. The notion of passers-by means any person who passes by either closed or open public places.”

“The law was passed to give effect to Lebanon’s commitment under the International Convention for the Prohibition of Smoking, which imposed a comprehensive ban on ads if the country’s constitution does not prevent such a ban,” the advisory continues. “Lebanon did not express reservations regarding this issue at the conclusion of the convention, because it did not have constitutional provisions that would prevent the ban.”

Moushi concluded that “the advertisement ban stipulated in article 12 of the anti-smoking law was comprehensive and includes all open and closed public places if a person passing in them, through them, or outside them is able to see the ads.”

The president of the association Free Life Without Smoking, Rania Baroud, told Al-Akhbar that the advisory opinion issued by the ministry of justice is a victory for all those who seek to enforce the anti-smoking law. Baroud said that the ministry of economy promised the association that it is about to start issuing violations against commercial establishments that put up smoking ads starting in mid-August.

On Thursday, the association Free Life Without Smoking in coordination with the youth section of the Lebanese Red Cross distributed “love tickets” to cafe customers in Antelias.

The “love ticket” looked like the official ticket that is supposed to be issued against people who smoke in public places and is worth a third of the minimum wage, that is LL135,000 ($90). Starting on 3 September 2012, smoking in closed rooms inside restaurants and cafes will also result in a ticket.

Some cafe owners in Antelias prevented the Red Cross young volunteers from entering their premises and one cafe owner said: “We are making a living from the hookah, what are you doing here?”

A young woman in Petit Cafe received the “love ticket” with a smile blowing smoke in the face of the volunteers and the cameras, wondering whether hookahs will also be banned.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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