ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Smokers in Turkey tempted to flout an imminent ban in cafes, restaurants and bars will be spared execution as allegedly meted out in 17th-Century Istanbul — but their Prime Minister has likened cigarettes to terrorism.
That’s a measure of how strongly Tayyip Erdogan feels about tobacco. Sultan Murad IV is said to have roamed the streets ordering the execution of those who defied a smoking ban aimed at curbing coffee house sedition.
One of the world’s oldest prohibitions of smoking, Murad’s failed and as tobacco’s popularity grew in Turkey, the saying “smoke like a Turk” took root in languages across Europe.
In modern times, Erdogan is the driving force behind the next phase of a widely popular ban taking effect on July 19, which aims to curb the habit in a country where 22 million people, including around half the adult male population, smoke.
But at a time of economic crisis, the prohibition — adding restaurants, cafes and bars to the places where smoking is not allowed — is viewed by a minority as a potential assault on their culture.
Erdogan, who long since banned smoking in cabinet meetings, also faces opposition from owners of thousands of establishments across the Muslim, European Union-candidate country, who see the ban as a threat to their business.
Some in the bar industry point out the smoking ban coincides with the introduction of restrictions on alcohol advertising this month, but experts reject suggestions it is a stalking-horse for tighter controls on the sale of alcohol.
“Let’s keep alcohol and cigarettes separate. They are different things,” said Law Professor Hayrettin Okcesiz of Akdeniz University. “If there is a ban on alcohol everyone should have the right to protest, but we shouldn’t see this is as step toward an alcohol ban.”
Among opponents are those who work in nargile, or water-pipe cafes, an ancient tradition which has enjoyed a revival in the last decade among locals and tourists.
“This is the Ottoman culture which comes from our ancestors,” said cafe owner Ali Yogurtcu, 54. “We will protest if they try to ban this, but I don’t think they will try to destroy it.”
A meager fine under Turkey’s ban — 69 lira ($45) against a ceiling of 500 euros ($700) in neighboring Greece — masks fierce determination on the part of Erdogan.
His personal dislike of the habit may give the ban the momentum it needs to succeed in the world’s seventh biggest cigarette market.
When the anti-smoking campaign was first launched in 2007 he famously declared the struggle against cigarette usage to be “as important as the struggle against terrorism,” words which resonate strongly in a country which has witnessed a bloody 25-year-old Kurdish guerrilla insurgency.
In Turkey, 100,000 people are estimated by the Health Ministry to die annually from smoking-related illnesses — about 0.45 percent of smokers. Globally, some 5.4 million die annually out of about 1.3 billion, which at 0.41 percent makes Turks fractionally more vulnerable.
Surveys indicate around 90 percent popular support for the smoking ban, which started last year in workplaces and shopping centers. The authorities say that has already lowered cigarette consumption slightly.
Support has been helped by a growing interest in healthy lifestyles as people enjoy greater prosperity and expect better standards of living. But there have been problems.
A group of convicts rioted at a prison in the southeastern province of Siirt, climbing onto the roof, lighting fires and throwing stones to protest at the ban on smoking at the jail.
Smoking has also continued in some cafes in shopping centers, where retailers have complained about its impact on trade as the economy slumped nearly 14 percent in the first quarter of the year.
These fuel doubts about whether the ban will be implemented in the thousands of smoky, male-dominated tea-houses in towns and villages across Turkey where many men spend much of their free time, gossiping or playing backgammon.
Tea-house owners say more than 80 percent of their patrons smoke.
Others say Erdogan’s anti-smoking fervor reflects efforts to change society in a country where his Islamist-rooted AK Party is accused by secularists of promoting a more conservative vision since it came to power in 2002.
“I think we have been heading toward a camouflaged alcohol ban,” said Tahir Berrakkarasu, who heads the BEYDER association which represents cafes, bars and restaurants in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, the heart of the country’s nightlife.
“Why is this happening? It means that alcohol isn’t wanted in this country,” he said, referring to what he says is a six-year government campaign targeting bars with a stream of taxes and bureaucratic obstacles.
The advertising restrictions on alcohol that take effect this month ban linking alcohol to food and cultural values: drink producers say they will severely curb their marketing ability.
Semih Mavis, who heads the Turkish operations of Efes Beer Group, the country’s largest brewer, said the restrictions boost the likelihood Turkey will be perceived as a country of “prohibitive interventions” in people’s lifestyles and entertainment.
Waiter Mustafa Kivrikdal, 32, serving in a water-pipe cafe, was more outspoken: “I think there is a religious factor in this,” he said. “They are against alcohol and they are against smoking and they want to put an end to this.”
Nonetheless, there is little sign of conservativism taking hold around the bars of Beyoglu, which swells with hordes of drinkers at night. And even among those enjoying a smoke before the ban is imposed, there is support for the move.
“If there is a punishment people will obey this,” said aviation company employee Elif Arda, 23, smoking at a table outside Sahika bar. “I think people will get used to it with time and that will be a good thing, even if I still smoke.”
Even though the authorities say implementing the ban will be a challenge, they point out Turks are receptive to change, citing the success of a 13-year-old ban on smoking in buses and the country’s adoption of the Latin alphabet in place of Ottoman Turkish script in 1928.
“We can see that the people who live in this land can adapt very quickly to change,” said Ubeyd Korbey, who chairs an anti-smoking association and played a role in drafting the ban. “And we now have a very decisive prime minister.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith