News that Saudi Arabia is still working to implement a smoking ban in public places a year after it first flagged the idea reinforces the challenges of such a move.
It’s unclear why the kingdom is still in the process of setting laws around this, given a statement last August said it has been decreed and was in force.
Anyway, experiences in other countries show it will be a difficult task changing habits that are long-standing and culturally acceptable in the Middle East.
In Lebanon, where about 38 percent of the adult population smokes, a ban on smoking in enclosed public places was met with an outcry, with sit-in protests by some restaurant and café owners who feared losing business.
Almost a year on and, judging by figures quoted in an Al Akhbar newspaper report, it has been somewhat futile, with an unofficial count revealing Lebanese courts issued judgments in only about half of the police reports involving violations of the smoking ban.
According to the chart, Beirut’s court registry received 222 police reports against smoking ban violators, mostly against owners of tourist establishments. Out of these, verdicts were issued in only eight cases, with $66 fines imposed in four cases and fines in the remaining cases ranging between $199 and $331.
It was a similar tale in Abu Dhabi where an indoor ban on smoking in mall cafés and restaurants, which took effect last year, also resulted in confusion. Local media reported that some premises were fined and others continued to allow their customers to smoke without any warnings.
The truth is this: enforcement is only ever going to be part of the solution. Authorities don’t have the time to run around policing every street corner, cafe or restaurant to enforce the ban. And clearly, judging by the Lebanon example, nor do the courts.
As has been the case in countries where smoking bans have long been in force – Australia, the US and UK to name a few – the ban is used to serve as a deterrent with education and, ultimately, peer pressure working equally to deter would-be violators.
Dr Ali Al Wada'ei, the head of the department to combat smoking at the Saudi Ministry of Health, admits that increasing tobacco product prices by 100 percent had not worked.
It is certainly backed up by statistics that show Saudi Arabia is the 4th-largest importer and 23th largest consumer of cigarettes in the world.
Instead, Al Wada'ei talks about a three-pronged approach to combat smoking that involves education and awareness campaigns, services to help smokers quit as well as legislation.
Investing resources into all three will be the only way to begin to tackle the issue.