Turkey extends smoke ban to bars

July 20, 2009 1:59:40 PM PDT
It's 11 p.m. Saturday and "The Last Night of Smoking Party" at Ankara's EskiYeni (OldNew) Bar is under way. A majority of the customers have lit up and are swaying to the rhythm of cigarette-themed 60s and 70s Turkish songs.In just one hour, smokers will have to leave the bar for its courtyard as Turkey - a nation of smokers - extends a ban on indoor public smoking to include bars, restaurants, village coffeehouses and hookah bars.

The ban comes into effect despite protests from bar and coffeehouse owners who fear it will ruin businesses that have already been hit hard by the effects of an economic crisis.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-oriented government barred smoking in offices and public transport and other public places in May 2008 in an effort to reduce the country's high smoking rates and the effects of secondhand smoke on people's health. Bars, restaurants and cafes were given a grace period that ends at midnight Saturday.

"To smoke like a Turk" is an expression used in many European countries to describe heavy smokers and the government says more than 100,000 people die annually in Turkey from smoking-related illnesses.

Health Minister Recep Akdag says smoking rates have dropped seven percent since May 2008, when the ban on indoor smoking was introduced. He says more people will give up smoking once bars, restaurants and cafes are also made smoke-free.

The government has dismissed the bar and coffeehouse owners' protests and requests that special smoking rooms be set up to make sure that smokers keep coming.

"There is no reason for (cafe and bar owners) to be worried. The public supports a smoke-free environment and the only ones to suffer will be the cigarette producers and sellers," Akdag told reporters.

"We are working to protect our future, to save our youth," Akdag said.

Patrons violating the ban will be fined 69 Turkish Lira ($45; euro32), while owners who do not enforce the ban could be fined between 560 and 5,600 Turkish Lira ($366-$3,660; euro260-euro2,600).

Turkey is also setting up a 4,500-person force to carry out surprise checks on bars, restaurants and coffeehouses and help enforce the ban.

The government insists the ban has the public's support. But there was little evidence of that support on Sakarya street, lined by fast food outlets and bars: Posters on windows read: "We are opposed to the no-smoking ban." Bar and restaurant owners were planning to stage a protest on Sunday.

"I think half of the bars on (Sakarya) street will go out of business," said Caglar Ozcan, who owns EskiYeni. "They are already suffering."

At smoke-filled EskiYeni, customers danced on the floor to the rhythm of songs that went: "If only I could wrap you in my cigarette smoke and keep you forever" and "My drink and my cigarette are my only friends but would they leave me too if I had no money?"

DJ Alper Fidaner says he smokes two packs every evening when working.

"I don't know how I will cope next week," Fidaner said. "I will have to put a record on and rush out for a smoke."

Erhan Kaya, a 30-year-old businessman welcomes the ban and says he might even start going to the traditionally smoke-filled neighborhood coffeehouses where Turkish men usually pass time smoking and playing backgammon.

"I would never go because of the smoke," Kaya said. "But I think I will start going now to play backgammon."

Yesilay, an organization which devoted to reducing alcohol and tobacco consumption, says around 40 percent of Turks over the age of 15 are smokers, consuming around 17 million packs a day.