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Sat 8 Jun 2019 12:05 PM

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Thank you for not smoking?

Lebanon has raised taxes on tobacco products as part of its new austerity measures, but smokers are angry that their tool for deflating stress is now more expensive, and their quality of life still daunting

Thank you for not smoking?
Unfiltered: The satirical film received mixed reviews

When an article titled ‘Lebanese bubble with anger over shisha tax’ came out recently - as the Beirut government imposed a new fee on the water pipes in line with a larger austerity package, I recalled a scene from the 2006 comedy-drama film Thank You for Smoking, where Big Tobacco’s chief spokesman, Nick Naylor, argues that if cigarettes should have a warning label for something people already know (smoking is bad for you) then so should cheddar cheese for resulting in high blood cholesterol, which puts you at twice the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

“Perhaps Vermont cheddar should come with a skull and crossbones,” Naylor says. “I’m sorry. I just don’t see the point in a warning label for something people already know.”

Of course, it sounds utterly outrageous to compare cheese to cigarettes, which are among the top tobacco products that reportedly kill as many as five million people each year (one person every six seconds), according to the World Health Organisation.

Then again, stress kills 2,100 percent more people (110 million) every year, according to the Centres of Disease Control and Prevention - that’s seven people every 2 seconds.

In the article by AFP, 26-year-old university student Abbas Nasreddine argues that smoking is “how we deflate stress. But now our tool for coping with our worries has become a worry itself”.

And the Lebanese are definitely worried - with good reason. Once dubbed the Paris of the Middle East and the glamorous destination for Hollywood stars, Lebanon is now haunted by decades of civil war, corruption and political crises, leading it to become one of the world’s most indebted countries.

In a bid to combat a swelling budget deficit, the government introduced a series of austerity measures including reduced benefits and pensions and tax hikes on everything from permits for tinted windows to (most recently) shisha.

It’s time authorities attempted to solve the root of the problem behind people’s smoking habits

Accountant Hussam Shuman, 28, tries to calculate how much more he will have to spend on shisha every month as he tells AFP, “Let [the government] get money from somewhere else. Why are they targeting us water pipe smokers? They’re ruining us.”

Considering a full hookah is equivalent to smoking up to 30 cigarettes at once and is linked to lung cancer, according to WHO, it is – at first glance – unlikely that raising taxes on tobacco products will ruin Shuman. If anything, it might save his life.

But the human psyche is not that simple. Like many Lebanese, Shuman accuses the ruling class of raising prices and limiting benefits and pensions rather than fighting corruption, tax evasion and smuggling to reduce the deficit.

Given than 80 percent of current smokers live in middle- and low-income countries, according to WHO, one can understand where Shuman is coming from.

It’s important to note that the argument here isn’t that smoking is not bad, or shouldn’t be taxed and even eradicated in its entirety. The argument is that while smoking in the United States has dropped to record lows, according to the CDC, it has risen in lower- and middle-income countries.

Of the 1.1 billion people who smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products globally, approximately 226 million live in poverty.

The top causes of smoking? Stress, worry, frustration. Maybe it’s time the authorities attempted to solve the root of the problem behind people’s smoking habits, before taking away one of the tools they’ve adopted to de-stress from an economic turmoil they have unwillingly found themselves in.

Perhaps with positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement, a better quality of life first before a more frustrated life, would be a better way to combat smoking. After all, aren’t rewards better than punishment?

The reason behind the success of the satirical film Thank You for Smoking is not because it condoned smoking. It didn’t. It simply appealed to the human psyche which is, by nature, rebellious, hence the smoking. But it’s also pretty easy to manipulate.

As tobacco chief spokesman Naylor says in the film, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk.” If people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to hear people talk (a ticket for a tony Robbins show in Dubai is priced at $5,444), surely we can convince them to stop smoking at their own will before making them more frustrated.

Then again, Lebanon’s state-owned cigarette company does make billions of dollars from cigarette sales. If it could send a message to its customers, I wonder what it would say – maybe, ‘thank you for smoking?’