The hookahs have been packed away and cigarettes stubbed out. Damascus, like Paris and New York, now has a smoking ban. Last week it became illegal to smoke in restaurants and cafés here – there had been a six-month period of grace since the law was passed to allow people to prepare for the big day. It’s been a tough sell in a country where, according to statistics from the Syrian Society for Countering Cancer, more than 60 per cent of adult men and 23 per cent of women smoke.
When a similar draft law was agreed by Iraq’s cabinet last year – another die-hard smoking country – its implementation was met by staunch opposition. In neighbouring Lebanon many may favour such a ban but nobody is under any illusion that it would actually be possible to enforce it. Syria, however, is another story.
“This is a country where a Bedouin driving in the middle of the desert will be wearing his seatbelt. People are more disciplined here because of the government’s strong grip,” explains one Syrian businessman.
As with the recent speed limits implemented on Damascus’s ring road, the smoking ban comes with strict fines for anyone who flouts it. Restaurant and café owners will incur $900 (€680) fines and flagrant smokers must pay the equivalent of $46 (€35). In a country where the average annual income is around $3,000 (€2,270), that’s a big deal.
It’s interesting to see that Syria, which seems in no hurry to get cosy with the western states that are courting it (it refuses to cut ties with regional allies such as Iran and is rather slow at signing a trade agreement with the EU), is so eager to align itself with international health standards. “This [the smoking ban] shows Syria’s commitment to the framework agreement on combating smoking signed with UN,” explained Syria’s health minister Dr Rida Said.
No doubt, President Bashar al-Assad, who was an eye doctor in London before he took over power from his father, has something to do with the new law. In 2006, smoking in government offices and public transport was banned while tobacco-related advertisements have been illegal for more than 10 years.
Meanwhile, the ban is turning the country’s café society upside down. Shisha cafés, which are specifically geared to offering hookah pipes – a popular pastime for Syria’s youth – must redefine their businesses. Entrepreneurs are already offering “home delivery shishas” while cafés and restaurants have said they will try to entice customers with televisions (think blaring Arabic pop music and sports channels.)
The ban on smoking, like the new speed limits and parking meters, could be forerunners to more serious transformations in Syrian society. That at least is what the optimists would like to believe. But first the nicotine-patches will have to kick in.