I became intrigued last night by the idea that the Jasmine Revolution spreading across the Middle East and North Africa might in part be a response to the appearance of smoking bans in these countries. So I’ve been doing a bit of investigating.
Smoking bans are highly socially divisive. They effectively expel smokers from society, and one-sidedly benefit non-smokers at the expense of smokers, and set smokers against non-smokers. The more smokers there are in any society, the more angry smokers are generated by smoking bans, and the angrier smokers become with the severity of the ban. In the Middle East, male smoking prevalence runs at between 30% and 50%, by comparison with figures of 25% or so for most European countries.
The Jasmine Revolution started in Tunisia with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who had been subjected to harassment by municipal officials. It’s not clear whether Bouazizi was a smoker, but it does seem that Tunisia has the highest prevalence of smoking in the region:
As the world marked World No Tobacco Day on May 31, a recent report by the World Health Organization has revealed that Yemen has the second highest national rate of smokers in the whole Arab region, after Tunisia which ranked first.
At least one estimate reports that 50% of Tunisian men were smokers, and 15% of women, with a high prevalence among Tunisian youth. Furthermore, a strict smoking ban was introduced in Tunisia on 19 March 2010. Translated from French:
In practical terms, the anti-smoking law is reinforced by Decree No. 2009-2611 of 14 September 2009. Within six months he would be prohibited from smoking in all premises collective enclosed or covered, including restaurants, cafes, taverns, and tourist establishments, except in places specifically reserved for this effect.Under the new decree, it is forbidden to smoke in restaurants that the area covered does not exceed 50m ² and drinking establishments called Tier refreshment. A room or area for smoking will be permitted on the premises without the area of these spaces may not exceed 15m ².
There is evidence that the ban was not well liked. After the revolution,
Cigarettes lit in joy in front of the palace
Before the revolution people would avoid even casual conversations in the streets. Today, they can freely discuss the future of the country even in front of intelligence officers. Young people tend to light their cigarettes in front of the presidential palace to protest the pre-revolution ban on smoking nearby. Women are more sensitive to political developments.
So Tunisia seems to have been a prime candidate for a smokers’ revolt. It had the most smokers in the region, and it had just had a strict smoking ban introduced, and also enforced:
As for the control of cafes and restaurants, 36,000 visits were made, resulting in 12 000 warnings…
Might the same thing be happening elsewhere in the Arab region? After Tunisia, Yemen is reported to have the next highest prevalence of smoking. In late 2009, Yemen also enacted a smoking ban, which presumably came into force some months later. Although Yemen seems to have fewer smokers than Tunisia, some estimates rank Yemen among the highest in the world.
According to the study the number of smokers in Yemen is estimated at 3.4 million out of 22 million from the total population or that 77 percent of Yemeni men smoke, as well as 29 percent of Yemeni women. The study also uncovered that 29 percent of smokers are young, aged 17-24. These numbers makes smoking cigarettes in Yemen among the highest percentages worldwide.
So, depending on the severity of its ban, Yemen would also seem to be a good candidate for a smoker revolt. And right now, after weeks of demonstrations and shootings, the country appears to be on the brink of civil war.
Syria has become the first Arab state to implement a ban on smoking in public places, such as restaurants and cafes.The decree also outlaws smoking in educational institutions, health centres, sports halls, cinemas and theatres and on public transport.
Workers must not smoke during meetings and businesses need to provide well-ventilated areas for smokers.The restrictions include the nargile, or hubble-bubble pipe, which is popular among locals and tourists.The decree was signed last November by President Bashar al-Assad, a qualified medical doctor.
There have also been some rioting in Jordan, which has a similar smoking prevalence as Syria, and which is also in process of introducing a smoking ban.
AMMAN – The Jordan Restaurants Association (JRA) has called for postponing the implementation of the Public Health Law, which bans smoking in public places, until the end of the year, a JRA official said on Sunday.
The Ministry of Health issued a circular banning smoking in shopping malls starting March 1, while restaurants were given until June to abide by the law so they have enough time to study the implementation mechanisms.
BAGHDAD, Aug. 7 2009(UPI) — In Iraq, where it seems nearly everyone lights up, smoking is so pervasive many find it inconceivable that government wants to ban it in public, officials say.
A bill before the Iraqi Parliament would make it unlawful to smoke in government buildings and public indoor areas. Most residents interviewed by the Washington Post apparently don’t like the idea.
“We all have to deal with anger issues here,” one Iraqi citizen said. “That’s the reason people smoke here, to run away from that.”
People chain-smoke everywhere, observers say — in hospitals and restaurants, at weddings, funerals and after bombings. Only a few other countries in the region, like Israel and Jordan, have taken steps toward smoking bans.
Egypt also has 40% male smoking prevalence. And smoking bans are being introduced there also.
The Arab World’s largest consumer of tobacco is hoping to transform the northern Mediterranean city into the region’s first smoke-free zone. If successful, this ban will be extended to the rest of the country.
For starters, Egyptian authorities will impose a smoking ban in government buildings, where a 2007 law banning smoking in government buildings, hospitals and schools has largely been ignored. To demonstrate its seriousness, the government raised the cigarette tax as much as 40 percent last month.
The situation seems to be different in Saudi Arabia, where the prevalence of smoking appears to be lower, and where there does not appear to be any smoking ban at all.
Bahrain Ministry of Health inspectors have caught more than 14,000 people smoking in public areas since the kingdom’s smoking ban came into effect last year.According to official figures 72 offenders were women and 2,060 were under the age of 18, according to a report in the Gulf Daily News.The ministry said it has stepped up its anti-smoking campaign and has carried out a series of surprise inspections on public areas to ensure the ban is being followed.
It would also appear to be different in Libya, where the authorities seem merely to have said in 2009 that they were going to ban smoking.
Algeria, Lebanon, Qatar and Kuwait all seem to have little in the way of smoking bans. The UAE were threatening to introduce a strict ban a couple of years ago. Oman introduced a smoking ban in Muscat in April 2010. Morocco enacted a smoking ban in 2008.
So, from this brief survey, it would seem that – apart from Libya – Middle East political upheaval correlates fairly well with the recent introduction (and enforcement) of smoking bans, and with the prevalence of smoking. The highest prevalence of smoking is in Tunisia and Yemen, and both countries recently introduced smoking bans, and both have since been experiencing political upheaval. By contrast, in those countries with a relatively low prevalence of smoking, and also non-existent or unenforced smoking bans (such as Saudi Arabia), there has been little political upheaval.
It would not of course be that smoking bans have been the sole cause of the revolts sweeping the Arab world. It’s more likely that smoking bans introduced a further level of public disaffection on top of the previously existing level, and this was enough to trigger revolt. Smoking bans were just one contributor.