Lebanon smoking ban… A country united!

Here’s the usually packed smoking area in the MEA/EK lounge at Beirut Airport.

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“Shoo habibi? Where you smoke now? Ana halla, not so crowdy eh? Am feeling so stressy needing cigarette yanni, je vais fumer dans la toilette quelle horreur!”

I was astonished to arrive in Beirut this week and find the recently implemented smoking ban being enforced in all the places I visited. There were a few exceptions – an overflowing ashtray in a hallway at a university and an elderly gentleman wandering through the hotel lobby, cigarette in hand, oblivious to the signs hanging around him, with the staff just smiling and leaving him to it.

The hotel I was in has even banned smoking in all of its rooms, though I can’t find out if this is a hotel policy or the actually law (reports I have read say that hotels can have 20% of their rooms as smoking rooms). This doesn’t affect me, but paying for a room and not having a single bedroom available that you can smoke in seems a bit much. (The UK allows smoking in hotel rooms).

I’m all in favour of some encouragement to restrict smoking in Beirut – at times the place resembles one big ashtray. I presume it was what Britain was like in the 1950s. Do you really need to smoke in the lift? Officials at the airport smoking under non-smoking signs were also a common sight.

The average working man you see on the street here looks ten years older than he should be, with yet another Winston hanging from his lips. Seeing young people smoking shisha at lunchtime and you have to wonder whether they can even walk up a flight of stairs without running out of breath. A lot of buildings stink of cigarette smoke, constantly. No one will be harmed by smoking a bit less – but a total ban?

That said, whenever I’ve seen evidence a customer is a smoker, I have always encouraged him to light up during our meeting. I’d rather have a relaxed customer enjoying a good chat in his office about the wonders of whatever I am selling, as opposed to someone who is thinking about heading out to the stairwell as soon as he can get rid of me.

My personal feelings are that the smoking ban here goes too far.

One moment people are able to smoke absolutely everywhere and cigarette packets do not currently even have warnings printed on them. Next, we have restrictions that are as tough as those in New York, with no transition period in-between. Although perhaps Lebanon doesn’t do transition well? All or nothing is the only choice?

I would have preferred to see a partial ban. I think the UAE has a good compromise. You can’t smoke in public spaces, but hotels are able to have a designated smoking place, typically the hotel bar or nightclub. This means you can easily, as a guest, make a choice. The places that allow smoking are typically not family areas and there are plenty of smokey or smoke-free options in the city for those who want an adult night out as well.

Given Lebanon’s reliance on tourism and the business generated from people visiting all the small bars, expensive cigar lounges and ubiquitous shisha cafes, a blanket ban on something a lot of tourists and money spenders want to do makes no economic sense.

There do seem to be a couple of loopholes that can favour cafes lucky enough to have rooms with windows either side – open the windows and you can smoke there, apparently. Some landlords will suddenly find themselves sitting on goldmines, if the floor plans work out.

The general consensus seems to be that Lebanon has bigger fish to fry. I bet there’s a large smoking area in the Lebanese parliament and if there isn’t, there will be an amendment to the ban pretty soon.

There are some interesting conclusions to be drawn from the current situation, however.

Firstly, it’s being implemented, at least in the places I visit – places which often seem to ignore a lot of other rules and laws. How long this will continue remains to be seen. There are ten tourist police for the entire country, apparently.

Secondly, it seems to have united many different Lebanese factions, something no one has achieved before. Whatever their background, social class, religious affiliation and their status as a smoker or non-smoker, everyone I spoke to about the ban seemed to think it was completely ridiculous, draconian, made no economic sense and would fall to pieces in due course.

If I were an entrepreneur I would have several containers of snus on their way from Sweden, as well as a shipload of electronic cigarettes from China.

Let’s see what happens. This will be interesting.

* Addendum – Just after I posted this, someone wandered into the non-smoking area that is the former smoking lounge pictured above and lit up. It was actually more annoying having the smoke from one cigarette wafting through the doors than the usual fug of fifty or so.

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