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World Perspective | Bosnia-Herzegovina

Smoking Ban Seen as Ridiculous

Reaction to ordinance ranges from bemusement to outrage in Sarajevo, where cigarettes are a cherished part of the culture, and nearly everyone lights up.

January 10, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Smoking is an intimate part of the Balkan ethos--like tea-drinking in England and popcorn-eating at American movies.

In Bosnia, doctors smoke. Kids smoke. So do their grandparents. And there is no such thing as a nonsmoking section in restaurants or public buildings.

But that is about to change. Bosnian officials are on the verge of pushing through this country's first wide-ranging smoking ordinance.

Just one pro forma step away from becoming law, the new regulation will ban smoking in schools, theaters, hospitals, factories and all government offices.

Rooms may be set aside at workplaces for smoking employees, and restaurants will have to offer smoke-free areas.

Such restrictions may seem relatively mild, especially to Californians, for whom public puffing earns pariah status. But here among the dedicated smokers of Sarajevo, reactions to the new law range from bemusement to outrage.

"My parents didn't forbid me to smoke, and now some law is going to forbid me? I have no plans to quit," Olivera Sucur, a nurse, fumed as she stamped out a Camel filter. "I know smoking is bad for the health, [but] it's my hobby. I really enjoy smoking."

Sucur is 35 and, like most of her friends, has been smoking for 20 years, since she was in high school. She smokes about a pack a day.

At the plastic surgery department of Sarajevo's Kosovo Hospital where she works, a written order went out a few days ago prohibiting smoking everywhere except a single room set aside for doctors and patients.

For many Bosnians, cigarettes occupy a hallowed position.

During Bosnia-Herzegovina's 3 1/2-year war, cigarettes were currency. And they were a comfort--long drags to stave off wartime hunger and fear as the city was shelled.

Soldiers were paid in cigarettes--30 packs of the national brand, Drina, a month. The Drina factory and the Sarajevo brewery were the only industries to stay afloat during the stifling siege of this capital.

At times, it almost seemed that smoking was required.

Even a few health-conscious, Bosnia-based Americans who had sworn off tobacco found themselves sucked back into the habit. Smoking was everywhere. Natural. Expected.

And today, two years after the war ended, cigarette smuggling is the most common form of tax evasion practiced by officials and assorted wheeler-dealers.

Exactly why the Muslim-Croat Federation, which governs half of Bosnia, has chosen now to limit such a cherished part of the culture is a matter of some discussion.

A pretentious way to imitate the West, which Bosnia longs to join? Throwing a bone to the legions of international officials now working in Bosnia? Or simply a matter of health?

Boro Kontic, a smoker and a journalist who heads a nongovernmental agency that promotes free media in Bosnia, said officials are acting as if they have lost touch with Bosnian reality.

Kontic said he remembered how he and many of his colleagues were able to trade cigarettes for fuel during the war, the only way they could manage transportation at a time of severe shortages and black-market gouging.

"We've got here an American law in a country where 60% of the adults smoke every day," Kontic said, predicting that most Sarajevans will find ways of sneaking around the prohibition. In the U.S., about 25% of adults smoke.

The law also requires warning labels on cigarette packages and will remove advertising from television and radio. Violators, both individuals and companies, will be fined.

Already passed by the House of Representatives for the Muslim-Croat Federation, the law must undergo a final hearing at the House of Peoples, which legislates for the whole country. Its passage there is all but automatic.

Still, it is hard to imagine that Sarajevo's smoke-filled cafes, bars and restaurants will adapt very quickly to this change. At the Capri restaurant, one of the hottest in Sarajevo these days, a waiter told an inquiring reporter that there is no way smoking would be restricted at his establishment.

"Madam," the waiter said, with a hint of disdain at such a ridiculous question, "this is still Bosnia."

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