Bastion of smoking begins battle against nicotine

For about half the adult population of Turkey, smoking is an absolutely normal activity, the result being a permanent national health disaster with anti-smoking campaigns making barely a dent in the habit.

Now, about 100 lawmakers have submitted an anti-smoking Bill to Parliament that will ban the habit in coffee houses, shopping centres and taxis.

“We want our laws to conform with those of the European Union,” with which Turkey began membership talks in early October, said Cevdet Erdol, chairperson of the parliamentary health committee that will begin debating the Bill shortly.

“We must protect our people from this disaster at all costs,” Erdol said—aware it is likely to be an uphill task in a nation of heavy smokers who have given the expression “smoke like a Turk” to several European languages.

Health ministry figures show about 110 000 Turks die of smoking-related illness each year. About 60% of men and 20% of women in the country of 71-million people are smokers, one of the highest rates in Europe.

The lung-cancer rate is high, and two-thirds of the 150 000 cases recorded annually are a direct result of smoking, said Dr Murat Tuncer, head of the health ministry’s anti-cancer unit.

“The rate of tobacco-related cancer cases drops by 2% a year in the United States,” he said. “In Turkey, it increases by 6%—this is nothing short of an epidemic,” he said.
“If we do not win the war on smoking, we will never conquer cancer.”

Tuncer said the huge proportion of smokers, even among health professionals, is a particular source of exasperation.

Nicotine addiction has reached worrying levels even in grade schools, where 11,7% of schoolchildren smoke, according to ministry figures, despite a ban on the sale of tobacco products to minors.

Despite repeated campaigns on the dangers of smoking and secondary smoke, children under 18 can be seen buying cigarettes at an alarming rate at groceries, kiosks and tobacconists across Ankara, despite efforts by many shopkeepers to uphold the law.

Smoking is relatively common in government offices and completely free in bars and restaurants—only a few establishments try, somewhat timidly, to set up small smoke-free zones.

It is banned, however in some offices, mosques, churches and synagogues, hospitals, public transport and airplanes.

Among the reasons for the high smoking rate is relatively low prices, for example â,¬2,80 for a pack of Marlboros, and the fact that Turkey itself is a major tobacco producer, responsible for 4% of the world output.

Smoking is also an ancestral tradition that goes back to the 17th century, when the “nargile”—the hookah, or water pipe—became a fixture in Ottoman coffee houses.

The contraption is now enjoying a revival among the youth of Turkey’s big cities after several decades out of fashion.

The anti-smoking lawmakers have drawn the ire of the owners of coffee and tea houses, who see the Bill as a threat to their business.

“How can you prevent someone from lighting up while sipping a cup of Turkish coffee?” asked Isa Guven, president of the Ankara chamber of café owners. “They are using the EU as an excuse to kill off our ancient profession.”—AFP

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