Lebanese men smoke waterpipes on Feb. 14 at a rally to mark the fifth anniversary… (Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Beirut — First it was the bars of New York. Then the bistros of Paris. Now the smoky teahouses and hookah cafes of the Middle East are pushing smokers to the sidelines.
Eyebrows were raised last year when Turkey banned smoking in all bars, cafes and restaurants. Even though nearly 30% of the Turkish population smokes, polls said 95% of the people supported the move.
Its neighbor Syria also recently stepped up measures against smokers and puffers of the hookah pipe. In October, Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a decree banning smoking inside public places. Meanwhile, many Persian Gulf countries have instituted restrictions on tobacco use, and Jordan reportedly has a smoking ban in the works.
Now Lebanon, a country with one of the highest smoking rates in the world, has began to seriously consider the idea, with anti-smoking campaigners pushing for bans on cigarette ads and smoking in public areas.
Anti-smoking activists aren't the only ones pushing for changes in tobacco control here; so are some bar and restaurant owners. A growing number of establishments have started to cater to nonsmoking clients by offering nonsmoking seating areas and smoke-free nights.
Salim Hijazi has two nonsmoking nights a week at his Cafe Sho in East Beirut. The concept has become so popular that he hopes to add a third night. And he's not stopping there.
"In the long run, we want to make this a smoke-free place," he said. "We just have to get people used to the idea."
The idea seems to be gaining support.
Kamal Hirbi, the administrator of a Facebook group called Ban Indoor Smoking in Public Places in Lebanon, told The Times that the group drew a large following quickly.
"I created this group alone with no publicity, invited all my friends, and in six days 8,000 members joined," he said, adding that membership had grown to nearly 16,000.
Where it might get tricky, cafe owner Hirbi said, are the hookah cafes, a popular hangout for many Lebanese as well as tourists. He suggested moving those smokers outdoors. "I am sure that if tackled correctly," he said, "it can be solved."
Sandels is a special correspondent.