By Jocelyne Zablit (AFP) – May 29, 2009
BEIRUT (AFP) — Want to indulge in a guilt-free tobacco experience? Then head to Lebanon, a smoker's paradise where you can work, dine and have your hair styled in a cloud of smoke.
The anti-smoking lobby is barely a blip on the radar and the government cares little about the issue.
So the price of Cuban Havanas is among the world's cheapest, cigarettes are free of punitive pricing and the health warnings are barely visible on the side of packs -- a far cry from the bold warnings and images the World Health Organisation (WHO) is promoting this Sunday on "World No Tobacco Day".
Even teenagers can afford the average one dollar per pack, compared to an average seven dollars (five euros) in France or nearly nine dollars in Britain.
"The minute you land in this country you start huffing and puffing," said Ghazi Zaatari, a physician and chairman of the department of pathology at the American University of Beirut as well as head of a WHO study group on tobacco regulation.
"As far as tobacco is concerned, Lebanon is a health disaster."
George Saade, a cardiologist and head of the tobacco control unit at the ministry of health, presents a similar picture.
"The Lebanese government is doing nothing as far as tobacco control is concerned," he lamented, partly attributing lax enforcement to a rocky political situation.
He said his unit, located in two small offices at the ministry, barely has a 20,000-dollar annual budget -- a drop in the bucket compared to the millions available to the tobacco industry.
"Tobacco companies are very powerful in this country and they are involved in many things that would raise concerns of conflict of interest elsewhere," Saade told AFP.
"They sponsor concerts, television shows and sports events where free cigarettes are sometimes distributed.
"You even see them at ski resorts," he added. "Where there are youths, there are tobacco companies."
The area manager for Philip Morris, the largest importer of cigarettes in Lebanon, rejected the accusations.
"We market our products to adult smokers only and we're very strict about that," said Emile Moukarzel.
"We try our best to prevent minors from smoking, not only because it is mandated by the serious health effects of our product but also because it also makes business sense."
--Once hooked, you're hooked for life--
British American Tobacco, the second largest importer of cigarettes in Lebanon, had no one available to comment for this article.
Health professionals say the number of smokers in Lebanon is among the highest in the region and cancer-related illnesses directly linked to tobacco are rising at a rapid rate.
An estimated 3,500 people die annually from illnesses related to smoking, they said.
"In the last five years we have seen a 17-percent increase in cardio-vascular disease while the United States saw a 17-percent drop for the same period," Saade said.
Ironically, some of the local companies that market cigarettes are also the agents for cancer-fighting drugs.
Most worrisome is a growing trend of narghile, or water pipe, smokers, especially among teenagers who wrongly believe it is less harmful to their health than cigarettes, experts say.
"We are facing every day new evidence about narghile smoking, which is spreading among all age groups but more specifically among youths," said Rima Nakkash, an American University of Beirut professor who is doing research on the issue.
She said according to a 2005 survey carried out by WHO, 60 percent of youths in Lebanon aged between 13 and 15 smoke cigarettes, narghile or cigars, the highest number in the region.
Overall, an estimated 42 percent of males and 30 percent of females smoke in Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million inhabitants, health experts say.
"The tobacco industry has recognized the Middle East as one region of the world which has the least restrictive regulations compared to other countries, even in Asia," Zaatari said.
"So sometimes they use countries like Lebanon as dumping grounds for products they are unable to bring into other countries.
"And they are particularly interested in young people because once you're hooked, you're hooked for life," he added.
Zaatari also noted that although Lebanon signed WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005 it has failed to ratify the document and has shown little interest in enforcement.
For example a survey conducted at 40 restaurants nationwide in coordination with the Harvard School of Public Health showed that air quality in such establishments was, on average, hazardous by WHO standards.
"The thing with Lebanon is we are behind 20 or 30 years as far as tobacco control but we can learn from the experience of other countries," Nakkash said. "We can learn how they failed and succeeded.
"It's not like we are drawing up a nuclear strategy."
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