Turkish leaders push for smoking ban

The bill, which is likely to pass, challenges the stereotype of "smoking like a Turk."

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Since founding the first anti-smoking organization in Turkey 12 years ago, Ubeyd Korbey has become accustomed to being one of the country's most quixotic figures.

With one of the highest smoking rates in the world, Turkey isn't exactly a haven for antismoking activists. The thick smoke of cigarettes often seems like a natural part of the country's landscape. And the expression "smoke like a Turk" has even entered the lexicon of several European languages as a way to describe an excessive smoker.

"When I started this work, I was extremely lonely. Everybody was against me," says Mr. Korbey, president of the Turkish Foundation for Fighting Smoking.

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But Korbey and other antismoking activists in Turkey may soon be feeling a little less lonely. A far-reaching bill working its way through the Turkish parliament is aiming to tackle the country's widespread smoking habit.

The bill would expand an existing - though often poorly enforced - ban on smoking in certain public areas to the private sphere. It would mandate non-smoking areas in restaurants and coffeehouses, forbid drivers with passengers in their car from taking a puff, and even outlaw the appearance of cigarettes in films shown on television (smoking censors will have them blurred out).

Meanwhile, the municipality in Istanbul's well-heeled Sisli district has already passed its own groundbreaking ordinance, banning smoking in shopping centers and Internet cafes, among other places.

These initiatives, activists and politicians say, reflect an important change in a country that once didn't think twice about lighting up.

"Five or ten years ago it would not have been possible to try to pass laws like this. There would not have been anyone in Parliament to support it," Korbey says. "The mentality has changed."

Coming into line with EU norms

But while these new efforts to stamp out smoking are homegrown, some of the inspiration behind them appears to be drawn from the reforms Turkey has been implementing in the political and economic spheres as part of its drive to join the European Union.

"Our law will be near to European Union laws," says Cevdet Erdol, a cardiologist who is chairman of the parliament's health committee.

"It's important for Turkey to have health standards on the level with Europe and the United States."

Spain, for example, recently passed a law that prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants. Ukraine, Sweden, and Montenegro also recently passed laws banning smoking in some or all public places.

Turkish officials say cigarettes represent a serious health concern for the country of 71 million, where some 60 percent of men, 20 percent of women, and 11.7 percent of schoolchildren smoke. On the European continent, the average smoking rate hovers around 30 percent, though Greece's rate is 45 percent.

Strong support in Parliament

Turkey used to be one of the world's leading tobacco producers, and the tradition of smoking has a history that goes back centuries. During Ottoman times, coffeehouses where men smoked tobacco through water pipes known as "nargile" were a fixture of daily life. Furthermore, cigarettes are cheap, with domestic brands costing around $1.50 a pack.

The new legislation is scheduled to be voted on by Parliament in the next few months and its backers believe the proposed law is likely to pass, having won the support of the leadership of the ruling party, which commands a decisive majority in the 550-seat assembly.

Turkish papers have reported that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, is something of a crusading non-smoker himself, having chastised some of his bodyguards for smelling of smoke.

Cultural resistance

Stamping out smoking in Turkey may still be a difficult challenge. On a recent night in Istanbul's boisterous Yakup 2 restaurant, cigarettes seem as much a part of the dining experience as the savory appetizers and the bottles of raki - the anise-flavored spirit that is Turkey's national drink - on the tables.

Manager Yildirim Arslan says he would comply with any new law obliging him to create a non-smoking section, but he believes it would remain empty. Walking around the restaurant, Arslan struggles to find a table without any smokers.

"The Turkish people smoke just as they sleep and eat bread. It is part of life," he says with a shrug.

Murat Koksal, a magazine editor eating dinner with two friends, says it's hard for him to imagine a smoke-free restaurant. "The cigarettes, the raki, the conversation - they all accompany each other," says Mr. Koksal, who smokes almost two packs of cigarettes a day.

On the other hand, Koksal says he realizes that he and others may ultimately have to accept laws like the one being discussed in Parliament as an inevitable part of Turkey's decades-long push to Westernize.

"You have to respect the rights of the non-smokers," Koksal says, as he puts out a cigarette in an ashtray. "That's the European and American mentality."

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