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Syrian leader bans smoking in public

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria's president on Monday issued a decree banning smoking in public places, joining an anti-smoking trend already underway in other Arab countries.

The ban also includes a rare restriction in the Arab world: limiting places where Syrians can indulge in the hubbly bubbly -- water pipes known locally as argileh.

President Bashar Assad's decree, which will go into effect in six months, bans smoking in restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theaters, schools, official functions and on public transport. Offenders will be fined 2,000 Syrian pounds -- about $45.

Syria had taken steps before to try to restrict smoking, including a 1996 decree issued by Assad's late father, Hafez, that banned smoking in government institutions, hospitals and at the airport.

But the ban was often flouted and not strictly enforced. The younger Assad recently issued a law that banned the sale of tobacco to those under the age of 18.

Monday's decree is a much more sweeping measure reflecting Syria's desire to join other Arab countries struggling to control smoking with bans and anti-smoking campaigns.

Such laws are not easily enforced in the tobacco-loving Arab world, where people light up in offices, universities, taxis and even hospitals and where smoking has long been a social imperative and a rite of passage for young men. Packs can cost as little as 50 cents.

The decree issued by Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, also bans the favorite Mideast pastime -- smoking water pipes -- except in well-ventilated and designated areas. Also outlawed are tobacco advertising and the sale and import of sweets and toys modeled after tobacco products.

Health Minister Rida Saeed said authorities were working on campaigns that explain to the public "the health hazards of smoking and the environmental, economic and social vices of smoking."

Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates -- and most recently Iraq -- have imposed similar restrictions on smoking, but the bans vary in scope and enforcement.

Emirates authorities have banned smoking in public places and indoors, including water pipe smoking in certain places such as restaurants in residential neighborhoods.

Last year, Egypt, one of the top 15 smoking countries in the world, launched a campaign of visual warnings about tobacco's dangers, including a requirement that cigarette labels carry images of the effects of smoking.

Iraq's government in August unveiled sweeping curbs on smoking after parliament ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires governments to fight smoking.

Turkey banned indoor smoking earlier this year, leading a man to shoot a restaurant owner to death after being asked to put out his cigarette.


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