Lebanon must move urgently toward a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places, tobacco advertising and event sponsorship, and add warning labels to tobacco products in order to avoid thousands of preventable tobacco-related deaths annually, health experts said Wednesday. Speaking at a tobacco control workshop for journalists organized by the Health Ministry’s National Tobacco Control Program, health officials said around 3,500 people in Lebanon die each year from diseases associated with smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke. The figures suggest, more people in Lebanon die from tobacco than tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS and car accidents combined.
Lebanon “should implement the same measures being taken in other countries as soon as possible,” said Health Minister Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, referring to the total smoking ban already in place in dozens of countries across the world.
He said a comprehensive smoking ban in public places, coupled with strict regulation of the tobacco industry and health warning labels on tobacco products were proving effective in reducing the number of smokers and tobacco-related deaths.
“Smoking bans are actually popular, and even more so after they are enforced,” added workshop leader Karen Gutierrez, director of the US-based organization Global Dialogue for Effective Stop Smoking Campaigns. She said that contrary to popular belief, smoking bans did not harm the bar or restaurant business. “All countries, regardless of income level, can implement bans.”
The numbers of smokers here is significantly higher than the regional average: 45 percent of males and 34 percent of females are said to be regular users, according to Health Ministry statistics. Taxes on tobacco products are low, and advertising targeting young consumers is widespread.
Some 75 percent of children are subject to second-hand smoke exposure, increasing their chances of suffering from asthma, chronic bronchitis, eye and ear infections, potentially fatal lung and respiratory illnesses, and cot death.
Lebanon’s lax approach to tobacco control is straining its health sector, Khalifeh said: “We spend $900 million [annually] to treat heart and lung diseases caused by tobacco exposure.”
Even eating out can be a deadly experience, said Dr. Georges Saade, the Health Ministry’s Tobacco Control Program’s coordinator. A survey of 30 pubs and restaurants in Lebanon found the levels of tobacco smoke pollution to be dramatically higher than World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations of less than 15 micrograms cubed per day.
Some 60 percent of the establishments tested registered an average 309 micrograms per meter. Anything above 251 micrograms is listed by WHO as being a “health warning of emergency conditions.” In places where narghileh pipes were smoked, pollution was so high the meter stopped working altogether, Saade said.
Lebanon signed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005, and although it was ratified automatically, Beirut has done little to enforce it. In fact, Lebanon risks failing to meet the convention’s obligations: Article 11, which states that within three years of adopting the convention, countries must implement effective health warning labels on tobacco products, has not been put into effect. Nor has Article 8, which obligates Lebanon to “strive to provide universal protection” within five years.
Tobacco control legislation is growing in the Middle East, with Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Israel all enforcing partial or complete public smoking bans in recent years. But Khalifeh said that a “realistic” ban in Lebanon had to be introduced slowly in order to build popular support.