Turkish parliament makes "smoking like a Turk" a thing of the past

18th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

Burak Akinci looks into why the Turkish Parliament has just joined many other countries in Europe by enacting a law that will ban smoking in bars, restaurants and cafes.

   ANKARA, Jan 18, 2008 (AFP) - Smoking is so widespread and deeply rooted in
Turkey that even the French and the Italians - no slouches themselves when it
comes to lighting up - have made "smoking like a Turk" their byword for chain
   No more, says the Turkish Parliament, which has just joined many other
countries in Europe by enacting a law that will ban smoking in bars,
restaurants and cafes.
   Fair enough, for a country negotiating its entry into the European Union.
But can the law be effectively applied, many Turks wonder, in a country that
is not only a great consumer, but also a producer of tobacco - the fifth in
the world.
   "I am a smoker of the times - of course I will abide by the new law because
I know tobacco is bad for you," said 22-year-old Murat, who would only give
his first name.
   "But Ankara winters are cold and stepping outside for a smoke is going to
be torture," he said, a cigarette jiggling in the corner of his mouth during a
chat in a smoky cafe in downtown Kizilay, the heart of the Turkish capital.
   The city centre is home, among many other businesses, to a bevy of private
educational institutions that prepare high school graduates for Turkey's tough
university entrance exams and bars, restaurants, cafes and recently revived
hookah houses -- or shisha bars, as they're also known -- abound in the area.
   "Turks enjoy finding a way around the law as much as they enjoy smoking,"
Murat said, "so I wonder if this law will really work."
   "We have a right to a smoke-free life," interrupted a young woman from the
next table.
   The Turkish parliament, dominated by the governing Islamist-rooted Justice
and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enacted the law
on January 3.
   It still needs presidential approval -- a sure thing, as President Abdullah
Gul is as avowed a tobacco-hater as his close friend and associate Erdogan --
and there will be an 18-month "transition period" before the law comes into
   The bill initially provided for smokers' zones in all public
establishments, but was toughened during the parliamentary debate to an
outright ban with heavy fines -- much to the chagrin of parliament's smokers,
many of whom stayed away from the session rather than vote against and breach
party discipline.
   Once the law is in effect, anyone who lights up in a public place will be
fined 50 Turkish lira (29 euros or 42 dollars) and the establishment allowing
it a whopping 5,000 lira (2,900 euros or 4,200 dollars).
   The toughest job may fall on law enforcers -- many of them heavy smokers
themselves -- in a country where 60 percent of men and 20 percent of women
admit to being smokers.
   And although they will be among the first to preach the evils of the weed,
Health Minister Recep Akdag sheepishly admits, 50 percent of Turkey's doctors
say they are smokers.
   "Mentalities must change," Akdag says.
   But smoking is a persistent habit despite ever increasing taxes -- more
than 60 percent of the still relatively cheap average price of 4.00 lira (2.30
euros or 3.40 dollars) a pack goes to the state -- because it is a social
   Before smoking was banned in all public transport several years ago, a
cabbie's first friendly gesture to a fare climbing into his car was to offer a
   "What will we have left if smoking is banned -- how do we forget our woes?"
bemoaned accountant Erkan Cakir, 40.
   He covertly accused the conservative government of "acting like Murad IV,"
the 17th-century Ottoman sultan who punished smokers and drinkers with death
-- only to die himself at 28 of cirrhosis contracted by his fondness for the
   Restaurateurs and publicans too fear for the future of their businesses.
   "Fewer people will come - that's for sure," said Zeki Ulkenli, owner of one
of Ankara"s most popular uptown pubs.
   "Maybe in the cities, we'll get a new clientele that used to stay away
because of the smoke," he added optimistically.
   "But how they'll apply the law in village cafes, I don't know," he said,
referring to the small, smoke-filled rural tea-houses where, after a day's
labour, farmers gather to share political views, a cup of tea, and many, many
   Ulkenli, a cigar-smoker, said he had just kicked the habit himself.
   "I'm back on cigarettes now," he acknowledged ruefully.


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