This week Parliament passed a law banning smoking Chesterfield cigarettes in public places, coinciding with the reopening of Bliss Street’s popular narguileh restaurant Al-Kahwa after nine months of renovations, which include a sophisticated ventilation system.
“I think it’s unfair for those who smoke,” said Al-Kahwa’s human resources manager Hanadi Ahmadieh, sitting at a table across from a large group of men smoking narguileh. “I think there should be licenses for places with narguileh. And there could be special rules that would require a ventilation system.”
But Ahmadieh is not overly worried that the new law – which is not due to come into effect for at least a year – will affect the business.
“I don’t think people will follow the law. We’re Lebanese,” she said, looking out of the window at the chaotic Hamra traffic. “Like the seatbelt and traffic light laws, people will find ways to get around the law.”
Like many Lebanese restaurateurs, Ahmadieh isn’t too concerned about the new smoking ban, one of a raft of new laws introduced after a long parliamentary break, as she doesn’t believe that it will be strictly enforced, but rather applied according to the acceptance of each bar, cafe or restaurant owner.
The law, which was passed in Parliament Wednesday, makes Lebanon the third Arab country, after Syria and the United Arab Emirates, to ban smoking in public. The move follows years of campaigning by environmental and health activists, which included a Facebook page with nearly 16,000 members. The group lists restaurants and cafes in Lebanon that are already smoke-free, have smoking sections and occasional no-smoking days.
When it goes into effect the new law will ban smoking in all indoor public places as well as all forms of tobacco advertising, including sponsorship of concerts or other events. The legislation also requires larger pictorial warnings on cigarette packs.
Those caught breaking the law will face a LL100,000 fine. Penalties for restaurant owners who ignore the legislation will range from LL1 million to LL3 million.
According to a 2010 report by the World Health Organization, Lebanon ranks No. 1 globally for smokers, with 58.8 percent of adults lighting up on a regular basis, and with a high proportion of women smokers, at 27 percent.
Lebanon, which until now has some of the most liberal smoking laws in the world, including billboard and TV advertising and low tax rates on cigarettes, also has one of the highest rates of lung cancer.
“Welcome to Lebanon,” said Nasser Assi, when asked about the new smoking ban. “I don’t think it will take place, or if it does it will take a long time.”
Assi, the manager of Tasty, a spacious Hamra cafe with both indoor and outdoor seating, doesn’t see much changing once the law is implemented. He predicts that Tasty’s customers will move to the outdoor tables while closed-space establishments, such as his neighbor Al-Kahwa, will find ways to get around the law.
Many of Lebanon’s narguileh smokers, particularly during the summer months, are tourists from the Gulf, and invaluable to the tourist sector.
Still, he believes that Lebanon’s new smoking ban, however symbolic, is a step in the right direction. “It’s a civilized concept,” he said. “I smoke, but I shouldn’t bother someone near me who doesn’t smoke.”
Emile Karim, assistant manager of Italian restaurant Margherite in Gemmazyeh, agrees. “It’s good because we don’t have ventilation or windows, so right now our non-smoking customers are affected by the smoke.”
And he’s not worried about the ban hurting business, noting that two months ago the restaurant had a one-day non-smoking trial and there was no difference in customer turnout.
But while restaurants and cafes don’t necessarily rely on smokers for their business, bar owners have perhaps more cause for concern.
Many say that the majority of their customers are smokers, and believe that if some establishments deviate from the law, ignoring the smoking ban, it would be unfair on those law-abiding publicans.
“I don’t think most bars will follow the law,” said Charbel Abou Assi, manager at the Venue, a popular bar on Gemmayzeh’s main street, where he says almost all the customers smoke.
“But there is only a chance of the law working if everyone follows the rules,” he added.
Sara Nohra, a bartender at Porto in Gemmayzeh, agrees, and said, “If there’s one exception, that will ruin it for everyone.”