Mideast aims to break old habit with new anti-smoking laws

The Middle East, long associated with the ubiquitous waterpipe, is intensifying an anti-smoking drive as several Arab countries ban the practice in public places, even if success looks difficult.

From Beirut to Cairo, cigarettes are smoked everywhere, not just in cafes and restaurants, but in banks, ministries and even hospitals.

Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world and the heaviest smoker, announced on Thursday its intention to make the Mediterranean city of Alexandria the country's "first smoke-free city."

But the health ministry did not say how it planned to achieve this goal.

An existing law that prohibits smoking in public places is frequently flouted - notably by civil servants and police.

Nearly 40 percent of Egyptian men smoke, the vast majority of them throughout the day, according to a report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in January.

On top of this, at least 70 percent of those questioned for the survey said they were subjected to passive smoking at home or in the workplace.

Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also looking to kick the habit, having all passed anti-smoking legislation in recent months.

In January, the Emirati president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, ordered a ban "on smoking in public transport and closed public places."

Within the UAE, Dubai took the lead, introducing smoking restrictions as far back as 2007.

The official WAM news agency has admitted the new law is not being implemented everywhere, but insisted that "state-owned buildings such as schools, universities, hospitals, theatres and gyms will have to conform to the total smoking ban in the very near future."

In Syria, where nearly 60 percent of men and 23 percent of women smoke, a ban on smoking in public places came into force in April, with fines of between 45 and 870 dollars (37-720 euros) and potentially up to two years in prison.

Apart from its toll on the nation's health, the Syrian authorities have good reason to reduce smoking, with the average smoker spending eight percent of his annual salary on tobacco, according to the state-owned tobacco entity.

In Egypt, home of the shisha, or waterpipe, the WHO survey found that smokers spend around six percent of their income on tobacco.

Jordan joined the campaign last month, announcing a smoking ban on May 25 which the health ministry says will be strictly applied - with inspectors carrying out surprise visits on ministries and public places.

But some Arab countries appear less willing to quit.

In Lebanon, where cigarettes are cheap - at around just one dollar (84 euro cents) a packet - an anti-smoking law is still under study. And while Beirut signed the WHO's framework convention on the fight to stop smoking, the document was never ratified.

A survey carried out by the UN health body in 2005 found that a startling 60 percent of Lebanese between the ages of 13 and 15 smoked cigarettes, waterpipes or cigars, the highest rate for that age in the entire region.

Some bars have introduced "non-smoker evenings," but with little enthusiasm or success to date.

In Iraq, meanwhile, there is no anti-smoking legislation at all and very few public places impose smoking restrictions of any kind, with one notable exception.

Visitors to the Ibn Bittar heart hospital in Baghdad have their cigarette packets confiscated on arrival, under the orders of Iraq's health ministry.

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