CAIRO: Egypt is taking its first serious stab at clamping down on smoking with a campaign launched Thursday to enforce a ban in the scenic seaside city of Alexandria, no small feat in a nation where four out of 10 men use tobacco.
Authorities are determined to enforce a 2007 law that banned smoking in government buildings, hospitals, and schools. It did not take on the more ambitious targets of cafes and restaurants.
The law has largely gone ignored, but now those who defy it face hefty penalties.
"I think it will be serious this time," said Fatma El-Awa, the World Health Organization spokeswoman in Cairo. "A country in the region is finally following in the footsteps" of European nations, she added.
Alexandria — a city famed for its Roman ruins and ancient library — was selected as the first city for enforcing because polls of residents indicated they were receptive to the idea of a smoke-free city, El-Awa said.
This is the second major step to kick the habit in Egypt. A new law passed in late May raised cigarette taxes by as much as 40 percent.
The challenges are daunting in Egypt.
WHO statistics show that almost 40 percent of men over 15 use some form of tobacco. Additionally, the latest WHO study, conducted in conjunction with the Egyptian Health Ministry, found that almost 82 percent of daily cigarette smokers lit up between 16 and 20 times per day. The WHO says that over the past 30 years, the number of smokers in the country has increased over twice as fast as the population of 79 million.
The same study showed that Egyptian spend an average of almost LE 110 ($20) per month on cigarettes. World Bank figures show that roughly 40 percent of Egyptians live below or near the poverty line of $2 per day.
A glance around any Egyptian city clearly highlights the uphill battle.
On buses, in elevators, in hospital waiting rooms, government offices, smokers can be seen lighting up — often ignoring the frustrated stares of others.
Individuals who violate the smoking ban will face fines starting at $9 while organizations or companies can see their liability climb to as much as $3,640, said Sahar Labib, the health ministry’s director of tobacco control.
Smokers will have a three-month grace period before full implementation begins, she said. The pilot program’s success will allow it to be expanded to other areas. Health ministry officials say they expect the ban will be enforced throughout Egypt within five years.
Inspectors will be deployed around Alexandria to monitor implementation and a hot line was established to receive complaints.
Egypt for years has tried to curb smoking.
Cigarette packs have carried picture warnings for at least two years, with images ranging from one of a man lying in a hospital bed wearing an oxygen mask to the most recent — an image of a limp cigarette that not-so-subtly hints at the dangers of impotence for men.
While the images have raised awareness, they haven’t stopped smoking.
The government has also announced it was raising cigarette taxes by as much as 40 percent — a move aimed at generating sorely needed revenue, but which is hoped to have the added benefit of curbing what is arguably one of the cheaper pleasures in life for many Egyptians.
Domestically made Marlboros, for example, cost about $1.6 per pack while Cleopatra cigarettes, a staple in the tobacco-stained fingers of many Egyptians, cost 54 cents.
Like other laws passed and which met with mixed success — such as Egypt’s new traffic law — the proof will be in the implementation.
On that point, many are skeptical.
"There is no way that they will be able to enforce this law," said Hazem Badr as he paid for a pack of Marlboros. "I highly doubt they would be able to control people anywhere except for more private areas like cafes and restaurants."
Health officials, however, aren’t ready to light up just yet.
"I think Egypt is moving in the right direction," said El-Awa, the WHO official, adding that among the measures planned was a hot line to which complaints about violations could be lodged. "All these policies are being introduced very fresh in the country. You can’t expect a result to come that quickly."
Meanwhile, other countries in the Middle East are intensifying an anti-smoking drive as several Arab countries ban the practice in public places, even if success looks difficult.
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 (€37-720) 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.
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, water pipes 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.