A Calmer Iraq Takes on Smoking

An Iraqi boy smokes a cigarette in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Aug 6, 2009. The Iraqi government is considering a law to ban smoking in public places. If approved, the legislation would make smoking illegal in public places, such as government buildings, schools, movie theaters and airports. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

After six years of war and terrorist bombings, Iraq is moving against a different killer in its midst - smoking.

Sweeping curbs unveiled by the government Thursday suggest that as the violence subsides, authorities have more time to worry about normal quality-of-life issues. The legislation to go before parliament would ban smoking in public buildings, outlaw sales to under-18s, prohibit advertising, limit tar content and mandate health warnings on cigarette packs.

In heavy-smoking Iraq, where people indulge on buses, in schools and in hospitals, initial street reactions were mixed, with some welcoming the measure and others saying it would be difficult to enforce and that the government has more pressing issues to tackle.

"The government should solve the problems of electricity, the lack of drinking water and get rid of financial corruption. This smoking law should be last on its list," griped Mohammed Hussein, 45, an oil ministry employee who said he smoked for 25 years before quitting.

Abbas Hazad, 39, sat with his pregnant wife and two daughters in a park, lit up a cigarette and said he was fine with the planned law.

"I know that many people don't like the smell of smoke," he said. "I think Iraq is being given a break - we're starting to think more about our quality of life whereas before we were dealing with terrorism and bombings."

So once parliament reconvenes next month and approves the law, Iraqis could encounter a sight familiar in New York, London, Hong Kong and every other city where smoking is restricted - smokers huddled outside their office buildings and puffing away. That would have been risky when bombings, drive-by shootings and kidnappings were commonplace.

Attacks continue daily. But July, with at least 309 Iraqis killed nationwide, was the fourth quietest month since The Associated Press began tracking war-related fatalities in May 2005. Seven American troop deaths were reported - the lowest monthly total since the war started in March 2003, according to the AP tally.

Iraq is a latecomer to an anti-smoking trend already under way in Arab countries. It never had restrictions when cigar-loving Saddam Hussein was in power, and the only other attempt came from al Qaeda in Iraq, when it tried to stamp out smoking and other practices deemed un-Islamic in the parts of Iraq it controlled during the insurgency.

Al Qaeda's punishment was a chopped-off hand or finger. The new legislation carries fines of 5 million to 10 million dinars ($4,000-$8,000).

The Cabinet undertook the ban after parliament ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires governments to fight smoking. The Health Ministry says it has already acted to ban smoking in its buildings and bring the anti-smoking message to schools.

With U.S. combat forces gone from the cities, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government is increasingly trying to assert control, and to show the world that it is embracing compliance with standards common in other democracies.

Ihssan Jaafar Ahmed, the Health Ministry's public health director, acknowledged the ban would be hard to enforce in a country that is emerging from a state of lawlessness. But he said it was an important first step.

Smoking in the region has long been a social imperative and a rite of passage for young men. Packs can cost as little as 50 cents.

Bans in several countries vary in scope and enforcement - stricter in Israel and the United Arab Emirates, widely flouted in Egypt. Turkey banned indoor smoking last month, leading a man to shoot a restaurant owner to death after being asked to put out his cigarette.

Mohammad Ismail, a 32-year-old smoking with a friend in a riverside park littered with cigarette butts, welcomed the law in principle but said it was hard to quit.

"People smoke in Iraq because we don't have that many freedoms," he said. "I mean, a cigarette is a drug - if someone sees trauma every day and has so much oppression, one way to settle your anger is to smoke."
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