Career: Scientist | SABIC Innovative Plastics | Evansville, Indiana, USA
In many countries, to say someone smokes “like a Turk” is a common way to describe a heavy smoker. Sun-cured Turkish tobacco is a component in nearly all cigarette brands – and is particularly identified with the Camel brand of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which for nearly 100 years has heavily advertised it as “a blend of choice Turkish and American tobaccos.” The signature camel image on the pack was meant to suggest exotic Turkishness, never mind the Egyptian pyramid in the background.
Within Turkey, the identification with smoking is just as strong: At 40 percent, it has one of the highest rates of smoking in the world. The government of Turkey, however, is out to change this.
The resulting controversy over smoking in Turkey raises interesting questions about how to effectively bring about radical social change.
On July 19, a new nationwide smoking ban, with the slogan “smoke-free airspace”, went into effect. It prohibits smoking in all public indoor spaces, including public transportation, offices, shops, bars, and restaurants; it even limits smoking outdoors. Individuals violating the ban can be fined 69 Turkish liras (around $45); owners of establishments that fail to enforce the ban can be fined in a range of several hundred to several thousand dollars per instance. The government insists these are necessary measures, since more than 100,000 deaths a year are said to be smoking-related. The law will also bring Turkey more into line with laws currently in effect in the European Union (EU), which Turkey seeks to join. The rate of smoking in the EU is about 30 percent.
In few EU countries, however, is smoking such a part of the national fabric. In Turkey, tobacco is more than a national symbol, more than a national export, more than a habit. It is an integral part of a way of life. There are more than 150,000 small coffee and tea houses where men young and old congregate to chat, smoke, play backgammon, and sip coffee, tea, or the national alcoholic beverage, raki.
While the government enjoys a certain amount of public support for its smoking ban, it has also plainly offended many smokers. Examples are abundant. In the Turkish press, a 60 year-old man was quoted as saying, “I can give up anything else in my life, but not smoking.” For legions of retired and unemployed men, the ban in effect deprives them of one of their principal social pleasures.
In the first month after the ban, many of them stopped going to their now smoke-free cafes. More than 1,000 coffeehouses closed down as a result, claiming their customers refuse to spend their time there if that means getting up every 10 minutes to go outside for a cigarette.
The old advertising slogan, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” has developed a modern Turkish version: “I’d stay home for one.”
Café owners, some of whom have already gone bankrupt, protested in the streets of Ankara. Others tried to circumvent the law by, for example, removing the roof of a café – thus converting it to “outdoor space” – or running double hoses outside with a cigarette attached to the end. (Neither of these ruses worked.) Individual smokers have told the media they will continue smoking wherever they like, ban or no ban—a situation which puts the proprietors of businesses in a tough position: either become an anti-smoking cop against their own customers, or run the risk of paying a huge fine. This also can be dangerous. Just three weeks into the ban, a coffeehouse owner who tried to enforce the ban as directed was shot dead by one of his patrons.
The government remains intransigent, and recently hired 4,500 inspectors to enforce the law.
Meanwhile, grassroots protest threatens to take more political form. At a recent demonstration by coffeehouse owners, a banner read, “When cigarettes go out, the light bulb will follow.”
The light bulb is the symbol of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It’s much too early to know if such threats have any weight, but it’s worth noting in a country where 60 percent of men smoke, and where a smoking ban adds both psychological stress and economic woe to a people already suffering under the global economic downturn.
What can be done, then, to bring about a life.saving change in social habits without incurring major problems?
It is clear that there is no way to satisfy both smokers and anti-smokers. Any solution should serve the public need for a healthier society, while not insulting smokers or putting people out of business.
A ban should be just one part of a continuing national war against smoking, with realistic goals and adequate, steady funding. Support programs for quitters should be expanded and heavily promoted. Educational programs for children and adults are needed nationwide. The economic consequences for small businesses in a country like Turkey should be anticipated and mitigated as part of the government’s plan.
Much remains to be seen. Will the protests flare up into large-scale political opposition – or gradually die down into insignificance? Will the law result in reduced smoking rates and better health, or will smokers and businesses find ways around the ban, such as bribing inspectors?
One thing is for sure: Tobacco is not just a Turkish problem. Many countries have already enacted laws to ban smoking, and others are considering them. One country on the verge of enacting a ban comparable to Turkey’s is Iraq, where, according to the World Health Organization, more than 41% of Iraqi men and almost seven percent of Iraqi women are smokers. It could be that in Iraq, before long, a smoking ban adds to the already acute stress of a war-shattered, economically devastated people.
If so, the Iraqis may be in an excellent position to judge whether it is wise, or even feasible, for a nation to quit smoking “cold turkey.”