Inside a crowded Hamra coffee shop, Issam Maita is having a lively discussion with a restaurant manager. He is engaging, smiling, laughing and quick to agree.
But Maita is adamant about one thing: that the restaurant should totally comply with the country’s new smoking ban .Anti-smoking advocate Maita wants the restaurant to clearly post non-smoking signs in their establishment, and for smoking to only be allowed in an outdoor area, just like the laws says.
The manager isn’t quite sure.
The manager and Maita happily argue over the particulars of the new law. They go over the regulation size of no-smoking signs, the exact definition of an outdoor space and the cost of fines for violations.
“To make the system effective, we can’t break the chain,” Maita says, stressing the need for total compliance with the law.
Maita insists on following the details, but this restaurant manager and many others wish he wouldn’t.
Their trade is in selling narguileh and cigarettes as well as food. They see Maita and the law as a herald of slower business and slimmer times, so they cut corners and say the law’s implementation might not last.
But Maita is insistent. He is an unofficial messenger of a government that often has difficulty conveying clear messages, and he is a believer in laws that have regularly vanished or become malleable when put into public practice.
Dozens of advocates like Maita have decided to lend a hand in the implementation of a new smoking law that bans smoking in all public places. They patrol the streets of the country’s cities and towns talking to shop owners about the new law and writing reports to the police when they see infractions.
Just over a month ago the final stage of the new law went into effect. Smoking was banned in bars, restaurants, coffee houses and shops.
That prohibition came on top of two previous stages that banned smoking in public institutions, on public transport and cigarette advertising.
The early phases of the law were regarded as a flop by many anti-smoking advocates as taxi driver smoking continued and few tickets, if any have been issued.
The final stage has proved more successful. Smoking has moved outside at many bars and restaurants around the country.
Despite some brazen violations, particularly in workplaces, there is optimism that the ban could work.
Police have been making rounds of many establishments to see if they comply with the law.
Anti smoking advocacy groups such as the Tobacco Citizen Control Watch has sent dozens of smoking monitors like Maita to the streets to try and give the government a hand in putting the law into effect.
Walking around Hamra’s restaurants and bars on a Friday evening, Maita points out continual violators of the law he has seen on his monitoring visits.
He notes progress in one cafe that removed plastic siding to get rid of a third wall that created a closed space and violated the ban.
He points to another that is using undersized and tucked away smoking signs before going in to talk to the manager. Maita tries to make the rounds of about 20 establishments every week.
Monitoring is pretty easy, he says.
“Are they smoking inside or not, do they have the sign or not?” Maita says with a smile.
He says it’s the convincing that is the hard part, before going in to talk to another skeptical manager.
Because of the physical features of many restaurants, some are at more of an advantage than others when it comes to complying with the law.
Lots of restaurants can take out windows and doors to create an open area for smokers. As winter approaches that solution loses much of its appeal when the temperature drops and rain falls.
Restaurant managers are unsure how they will cope with the colder months, and many suggest the ban won’t last that long.
The dilemma and the prospect for more establishments to bend the law has many anti-smoking advocates concerned the law’s enforcement will start to fade.
As a registered nurse, Maita believes in the positive health benefits of banning smoking in public places and will do what it takes to keep the law in place.
Maita and other anti-smoking advocates have worked for years to get a non-smoking law on the table and they don’t want to see it slip away now.
Smoke if you want to smoke, but do it outside, Maita says.
“We don’t want to lose this battle.”