Lebanon’s Smoking Ban: Businesses Huff and Puff

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Lebanese men smoke at an outdoor cafe in Beirut on 3 September 2012 as a smoking ban in all closed public spaces, including coffee shops, restaurants and bars, went into force in Lebanon under new legislation that promises hefty fines for lawbreakers. (Photo: AFP - Anwar Amro)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Monday, September 3, 2012

A law banning smoking in closed public areas, including restaurants and bars, which took effect on Monday, has the owners of tourism establishments up in arms claiming their businesses will suffer a serious decline as a result.

Intellectuals, journalists, and cartoonists have joined forces with restaurant and nightclub owners across the country – along with smokers, who have suddenly discovered that an anti-tobacco law is about to take effect in Lebanon – to launch a campaign against its enforcement.

While all eyes are now on how interior minister Marwan Charbel intends to enforce the tobacco control law, tourism minister Fadi Abboud has already decided that he does not have enough tourist police officers to do so.

Similarly, health minister Ali Hassan Khalil has failed to sign the decree obliging the Regie (Lebanon’s state-run tobacco monopoly) to print a health warning on tobacco products covering 40 percent of the packaging.

Meanwhile, minister of economy Nicolas Nahhas continues to shirk his responsibility to impose fines against enterprises that violate the ban on tobacco advertising.

This is despite the fact that the department for legislation and consultations at the Ministry of Justice has issued an unambiguous advisory opinion, which stated that putting ads for smoking brands inside commercial establishments, whether directly or indirectly, is illegal.

While the officials fumble and stall, NGOs lobbying for tobacco control celebrated the arrival of the ban on smoking in restaurants, nightclubs and cafes on Sunday.

One year has passed since the ban on smoking in public and private institutions, workplaces, and public transport was passed, without a single fine being handed out to violators – with the exception of Rafik Hariri International Airport, where remarkably the ban is being strictly enforced.

The NGOs’ celebrations were countered with the mass grief of owners of hospitality enterprises, who believe that the ban on smoking will cause them significant financial losses. They have threatened to protest against the enforcement of the law.

The Restaurants Owners Association is demanding that article 5 of the tobacco control law be amended. They ask the ban apply to tea rooms, pastry and sandwich shops, and restaurants that primarily serve food, while cafes, cabarets, bars, nightclubs, and discos be excluded.

They are also asking for exceptions that would allow restaurants to serve hookahs (water pipes), provided they are equipped with ventilation and air filtration systems, with entry restricted to those over 18.

Restaurant and hotel owners had exerted a lot of pressure for this clause to be introduced during deliberations over the tobacco law in parliament, which stretched more than six years.

In the end, they succeeded in obtaining a grace period of one year before the ban came into effect, and were allowed to serve hookahs on the outdoor patios of their venues. Yet today, they cite this year’s dismal tourist season as a reason to be granted more exceptions.

The Restaurants Owners Association employed the services of Ernst & Young, a global financial advisory firm with many prestigious clients including tobacco companies, to conduct a study of the economic impact of the tobacco control law in Lebanon.

The firm’s final report claims that enforcing the ban on smoking and hookahs in tourist venues will put 2,600 jobs in danger, while causing financial losses of up to $46 million.

Ernst & Young’s study ignores the important fact that the Lebanese law allows smoking in outdoor patios, and at the same time highlights certain laws that permit so-called hookah bars to operate in other countries – although these outlets are prohibited from serving food and beverages.

The study says that enforcing the law will result in a 25 percent decline in earnings for hospitality enterprises, and a 14 percent loss in jobs, with bigger losses for cafes that may amount to 43 percent and 29 percent losses in earnings and jobs respectively.

As part of the same study, a survey showed that 71 percent of respondents believe that the Lebanese government will not be able to enforce the anti-tobacco law, while 82 percent said the law would pave the way for more corruption and bribery.

After conducting independent field research, the American University of Beirut (AUB) arrived at figures that differ from those presented by Ernst & Young.

Rima Naccache, from AUB’s Tobacco Control Research Group, told Al-Akhbar that studies carried out by companies funded by and affiliated with global tobacco companies are unreliable.

“The studies conducted in many countries that have enacted anti-smoking laws have shown that employment and revenues in the restaurant sector have increased,” she said.

According to Naccache, a ban means that restaurants have an opportunity to benefit from nonsmokers frequenting and spending more at their venues.

A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) argues that the economic impact of smoking bans in hospitality venues can only be measured on the basis of official data, including information on tax revenues, the number of new licenses, and employment rates.

To make a fair claim about the impact of the ban, all this data has to be assessed both before enforcing the law and then a year after it is put into action.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Every bit of information in that Ernst & Young "study" was based on a survey, not only the part about increased bribes and the state's inability to enforce it. When E&Y talk about job loss and business loss, that's based on what Syndicate members said they thought might happen. It's no more "scientific" or "authoritative" than an opinion survey of people with a vested interest in saying the ban will hurt them.

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