Restaurants vowed not to comply with a smoking ban  until amendments are introduced to the law that went effective last September, as hundreds of owners and employees protested in Beirut Wednesday. The demonstrators vented their anger at Law 174, which forbids smoking in public places – a law that many in the health sector see as necessary but which frustrates those in the hospitality industry.
The workers, who blamed the ban for the significant drop in customers at restaurants and other hospitality establishments, blocked Beirut’s Sodeco road leading to Ashrafieh, declaring that they would stop enforcing the ban until it was amended.
“Law 174 is unjust for 12 percent of establishments [that heavily depend on smoking-related activities] ... forcing them into bankruptcy,” said a statement by the association Tuesday, referring to the narguileh cafes.
Some “88 percent of establishments are happy to enforce the ban ... [but] their business model is not smoking based. Forcing smoking-based businesses with thousands of employees into bankruptcy  is bad policy,” the statement posted on the group’s Facebook page said.
Mohammad Choukair, head of the Beirut Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 200 restaurants have gone out of business since the beginning of 2012, while Paul Ariss, head of the Restaurant Owners’ Association says that the sector’s revenues have fallen by at least 60 percent since the law took effect.
Similarly, Pierre Achkar, head of the Hotel Owner’s Association, said occupancy has fallen by 70 percent during the same period, warning that “If the situation persists, the tourism sector would entirely collapse.”
But those behind Law 174 see these fears as unfounded and the amendment of the law as shortsighted.
“This is a public health measure,” said Rima Nakkash, assistant professor at the faculty of health sciences at the American University of Beirut.
“If there’s a loss to tourism, it’s because of other things that are happening,” she said, referring to the local and regional unrest that has hit Lebanon over the past year.
Nakkash, who has been working with local NGOs since 2004 for the passage of Lebanon’s smoking ban in public places, said that the restaurant syndicate’s lobbying started within days of the ban.
She also says the figures they cite came about from a study by Ernst & Young  that used a flawed approach, asking business owners how much money they thought they would lose rather than showing expected profits.
In fact, studies have shown that in countries where there is a total smoking ban, profits in the hospitality sector have actually increased over time.
Turkey, the birthplace of the narguileh, passed its indoor smoking ban in 2008 and has seen 5 percent increase in profits.
Within two years the country saw a 20 percent drop in emergency room check-ins for smoking-related illnesses, also resulting in a savings of $1.9 million in medical costs, according to the Istanbul Medical Center.
Nakkash rejects the idea that smoking – or even the narguileh, which contains a higher volume of toxins than cigarettes – is part of Lebanese culture, noting that the water pipe did not become widespread in Lebanon until around 15 years ago. She believes the ban has the potential to change people’s habits.
“We need to change social norms,” she said. “Some restaurants were smoke-free before the ban, and they didn’t lose customers.”
Still, she does acknowledge sympathy for those establishments that say they are suffering from ban and suggests the restaurant syndicate help them.
Le Rouge restaurant in Hamra plans on continuing to enforce the smoking ban in line with Law 174, cashier Nasser Jaafari said.
Some of the restaurants, for their part, feel caught between wanting to enforce the smoking ban and keeping their customers and neighbors happy.
At BeSivere, a bar in Hamra, the ban has been good for keeping the bar clean and free of second-hand smoke.
But this has come at the expense of the intimate bar atmosphere that has driven most of their customers and most of the noise to the outdoor section, on a recent occasion leading their neighbors to pour water on them.
Owner of the bar, Jihad Zein, sides with the syndicate’s decision.
“I like it to be clean, but I also like business,” Zein said.