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Fri 1 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Enforcement action

The success of Dubai's smoking ban will depend on how rigorously it is enforced, argues David Ingham.

Smoking was in the headlines again last month, but two key policy announcements - by Dubai and Saudi Arabia - were noteworthy for how different they were. Dubai took a decisive step by announcing that smoking will be almost entirely outlawed in public places by November 15 this year. Saudi Arabia, rather than announcing any kind of public ban, said it will sue cigarette companies to recoup the cost of treating patients with smoking-related illnesses.

The KSA government is reportedly after SR 10 billion up-front and a payment of SR 500 million per year thereafter. How long the SR 500 million would have to be paid out was not clarified, nor do we know where the case will be brought and against whom.

The lawsuit has certainly generated plenty of headlines and suggests that Saudi Arabia takes smoking as a public health threat seriously. It doesn't, however, achieve one fundamental objective, which is to discourage people from smoking. Nor is oil-rich Saudi Arabia in desperate need of the money. Is this announcement therefore more about public perception than trying to proactively discourage smoking?

A far more concrete step in the battle against tobacco is Dubai's decision to impose a public smoking ban. By the end of this year, smoking will be outlawed in offices, restaurants and other public spaces, although it seems that 'ventilated' areas in restaurants and malls will be permitted.

Public smoking bans are undoubtedly a good thing, but the concern in this instance is that the ban will not be rigorously enforced. After all, smoking was outlawed in malls back in 2004, but enforcement was lacking and the ban was dropped within a few weeks.

In order for it to work this time, security guards in shopping centres need to be encouraged and empowered by their bosses to pull up offenders. Penalties also need to be harsh enough to encourage people to adhere to the ban. Experience has shown that AED 150 doesn't stop drivers from speeding and parking illegally; more drastic penalties will be needed to make people follow the rules.

Restaurant and cafe owners will also have to play their part in enforcing the new law. Currently, many restaurants and cafes have no-smoking sections, but fail to make customers adhere to them. In future, this should result in a hefty fine for the shopkeeper. It will also be interesting to see how restaurants and cafes choose to define the term ‘designated ventilated smoking area'.

Dubai's public smoking ban is undoubtedly a good thing and revolutionary in a Middle Eastern context. Its success will depend on how rigorously it is enforced and the severity of the punishments for those choosing to ignore it.

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