Iraq Takes Aim at Smoking

BAGHDAD — In a country where the power blinks out several times a day, where filling up a gas tank can take hours and motorists iraq-smokingstew in seemingly endless traffic jams, smoking is one thing that seems blissfully easy.

A pack of cigarettes costs as little as 25 cents. They are ubiquitous, sold from mud-brick huts along highways, from card tables set up on city sidewalks and at countless storefronts throughout Baghdad. And you can light up pretty much anywhere, from buses to elevators to hospitals. Even (or especially) inside the Iraqi Parliament.

But following the lead of New York, London, Paris and scores of other Western cities, Iraqi lawmakers are now trying to push smoking to the margins of public life here, to the frustration of many of their constituents.

On Sunday, they are set to consider a law that would ban smoking from schools, universities, government offices and a wide range of private businesses, including restaurants and cafes. Billboards advertising cigarettes, which wallpaper commercial districts of Baghdad, would be outlawed. And cigarette companies would be forced to print harsher warning labels.

“This is an important issue,” said Jawad al-Bazouni, a member of Parliament’s Health Committee, which is pushing for the restrictions. “The citizen can complain to the smoker. He will get the law on his side, and it will be reflected in the public health.”

But some Iraqis called Parliament’s effort a quixotic waste of time by a legislature that has dithered on questions of greater import, like whether American troops should be allowed to stay past a withdrawal deadline of January 2012.

The prospects for passage of the tobacco ban are, well, cloudy, at best.

In the six months since competing factions quilted together a partnership government, Iraq’s Parliament has passed about 10 laws, none of them highly controversial.

They have passed a budget, canceled some Saddam Hussein-era measures and moved to cut their own salaries and increase some public aid in response to calls for government reform.

Politicians in the Shiite-led government have also spent time on impassioned speeches defending fellow Shiite protesters in Bahrain, and took a day off in solidarity. After a tortured debate, they approved a procedure for selecting vice presidents, but have yet to name one.

Through this, Iraq’s leaders have moved slowly on resolving the status of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, an oil-rich prize that is one of Iraq’s biggest trouble spots. They have not named ministers to lead the army and police forces, leaving a vacuum that some Iraqis blame for a recent spike in assassinations and other violence.

“There are more important issues they should be considering,” said Aboud al-Dulaimi, who was sitting with two friends outside a tiki-themed hookah bar in downtown Baghdad. “The government needs to pass laws to serve the people. They have more than three million unemployed, and they are busy with such laws.”

Sitting beside him, Abbas al-Janabi took a drag and declared, “It’s stupidity.”

Mr. Janabi, 46, said he had been a pack-a-day smoker in the 15 years before the 2003 American invasion. But in the chaos that followed, as he shut down his once prosperous factory, sold his house and moved abroad, Mr. Janabi said he began smoking more.

Now back in Baghdad after a brief exile in Dubai and Syria and living in a small apartment on Palestine Street, Mr. Janabi said he burned through four packs a day as he scavenged for work. He knows the habit may be his death, but he treats it with a fatalism commonly heard throughout Iraq.

“I know a cigarette will kill me one day, but I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “I may get killed tomorrow. It’s just fate.”

Parliament tried such a move once before, in 2009, but dropped the measure. It was reintroduced in April, and lawmakers have scheduled a second reading for Sunday, a necessary step toward passage.

Although smoking rates in Iraq lag far behind those in China, Russia and much of eastern Europe, few women or devout Muslims smoke, meaning that the rate among men is considerably higher. With Iraq’s cigarette consumption among the highest in the Middle East, smoking is easily Baghdad’s most widespread vice.

Bars and public alcohol consumption have rebounded as Iraq’s streets have become safer to traverse at night, but Islamic prohibitions against drinking and raids of Baghdad’s nightclubs have limited the spread of alcohol. At most cafes and restaurants, Iraqis sip fruit juice or tea instead of liquor, and content themselves with cigarettes and shisha — flavored tobacco from ornate water pipes.

Ali Assan Ali said his shisha cafe would be devastated by an outright ban on smoking in public places. He said he had spent $400,000 to open the business and renovate a second-floor space, and said the proposed smoking restrictions were too broad.

“This is my life, this is my health,” he said.

Nearby sat four friends, who expressed a similarly libertarian view.

“We are Iraqi,” said Rami Sabah, 19. “We like the shisha and the smoking. It’s a good place for young people to just waste time.”

His friend Baraa Ghazi, 27, offered a broader pronouncement as he took a languid drag. “This,” he said, “is freedom.”

Yasir Ghazi and Omar al-Jawoshy contributed reporting.

Published: May 12, 2011

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