For once, Saudi bans something other than women driving: Smoking in public!

Published June 14th, 2016 - 03:50 GMT
Shisha, or argileh tobacco pipes, a ubiquitous sight in the Middle East, are seen at a smoking cafe in Turkey. (Lindsey Leger)
Shisha, or argileh tobacco pipes, a ubiquitous sight in the Middle East, are seen at a smoking cafe in Turkey. (Lindsey Leger)

In Saudi Arabia, the powers that be are known for holding such lofty debates as to whether allowing women to drive will lead to not having enough virgins in the country, or declaring selfies with cats haram.

But this week, a law went into effect banning smoking in public areas in Saudi Arabia, following a royal decree that was issued 12 months ago. Is the law a win for public health and safety, or will people still find ways to light up?

For starters, the Kingdom could end up pocketing a tidy amount of cash from rule-breakers, with fines reaching up to $5,332 for facilities illegally allowing patrons or workers to smoke, and a fine of $53 each time an individual is caught smoking.

“The money gathered from these fines will be spent on awareness campaigns and charities related to the cause,” a source told the Saudi Gazette.

Additionally, there are several new regulations aimed at curbing tobacco sales, including not allowing tobacco products to be sold in vending machines or self-serve cash registers, and companies cannot give out tobacco as a gift or free samples.

The Middle East is undeniably a smoker's culture. Shisha cafes are a dime a dozen. A three-hour bus trip can take twice as long to accommodate frequent cigarette breaks. And Middle East Airlines, a Lebanese carrier, was the last airline in the world to ban in-flight smoking - in 2001. Passengers still lit up so regularly that ten years later the company had to beg the Lebanese government to make it a law so that it would actually be enforced.

In Jordan, there has been a smoking ban, at least on paper, since 2008, but it's a common sight to see the law ignored, even flouted, as government employees light up next to "no smoking" signs in public buildings.

In 2014, Jordan attempted to ban the popular shisha, or argileh, cafes that line nearly every street in Amman. A public debate devolved into a shouting match, where people fumed that such a ban would hurt small businesses and the economy. Two years later, it seems the shisha cafes aren't going anywhere.

Smoking bans were met with resisitence in Europe and the United States when first introduced, but now it's a rare thing to inhale second-hand smoke while sitting down to a meal. In the Middle East - like anywhere else - people are aware of the health risks, and the habit isn't cheap. Good enforcement of the law seems to be key to rolling back tobacco addictions and changing social attitudes toward smoking.

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