ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish smokers are vowing to defy a ban in bars and restaurants that will take effect next year, while anti-smoking campaigners accuse global cigarette companies of targeting the country as a key market.
Turkey is the eighth-biggest cigarette market in the world, where nearly 60 percent of male adults are estimated to smoke. Six global cigarette producers and state-run Tekel compete for a share of it.
The World Health Organisation says 80 percent of tobacco-related deaths will occur within a few decades in developing countries like Turkey, as consumption levels off or even falls in mature world markets. China alone accounts for one third of total cigarette consumption.
Anti-smoking campaigners hope Turkey’s tobacco consumption will fall by at least 10 percent as a ban in public buildings is due to begin in May, and a wider ban including bars and restaurants takes effect in mid-2009.
The government hopes to change European Union candidate Turkey’s image as a haven for smokers. “Smoking like a Turk” is a popular phrase used for heavy smokers in some Western countries.
A number of European countries including Italy, Britain and Ireland have outlawed smoking in public places.
Anyone lighting up inside a public place in Turkey will be fined 57 lira ($48), but businesses say implementation of the ban will be very difficult despite the fines.
“Pulling down the shutters is the only way to stop smoking here. Every one of our customers smokes,” said Cengiz Erdogan, who runs a restaurant in Ankara, as he nods at the ceiling which has turned grey due to heavy smoke.
Despite the threat of a 5,000 lira fine on businesses which allow smoking, bars will be reluctant to stop smokers because they are fearful of losing more customers: the growing conservative middle-class is already increasingly shunning places where alcohol is served.
Islam prohibits alcoholic beverages and frowns on smoking.
Given that Turks’ national drink, raki, is usually served with a second glass for water, Erdogan argued it will be particularly tricky for Turks to smoke outside as the law dictates: “You cannot go out with two glasses in one hand and a cigarette in another. This will interrupt conversations and spoil your night,” he said.
Despite campaigns by anti-smoking groups, cigarette consumption in Turkey is rising by between a 1-1.5 percent a year, compared with four percent in China.
Anti-smoking groups say international cigarette companies in the past picked the Middle East as a key market and distributed free cigarettes to promote them. They say the ban will be the only way to prevent cigarettes’ disastrous effects on society.
“The cigarette’s impact on Turkey is worse than terror. Every year, 117,000 people die due to cigarettes and we lose $2.5 billion every year due to diseases caused by smoking,” said Semsettin Toprak from the Turkish Temperance Society.
He blamed cigarette-makers for testing their products in Turkey, saying Philip Morris was introducing higher-nicotine, shorter cigarettes in Turkey for the first time to adapt to upcoming restrictions.
“My people are used as guinea pigs. America and Europe saw the dangers and the cigarette companies have turned to developing countries like us,” Toprak said.
Philip Morris International said its Marlboro Intense cigarettes, introduced in Turkey in November, comply with all applicable regulations.
“The tar and nicotine levels of Marlboro Intense cigarettes, as measured in accordance with Turkish regulations, are below the government prescribed ceilings for tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide in Turkey,” company spokesman Richard James said.
He added many Philips Morris brands and Marlboro variants not sold in Turkey are available in other countries.
Many smokers are well aware of the anti-smoking campaigners’ warnings and consequences of their habit for their health. But some are keen to keep smoking as long as they can.
Mustafa Ozkoc, a construction worker, said he started smoking at 13 and is still smoking three packs a day at 49.
“If the government wants to implement this ban, it has to close the cigarette factories. Even then I will make my own cigarettes and continue smoking,” Ozkoc said in a tea house filled with mostly jobless or retired men.
The damaging health impact is not a concern for many.
“Everything we owned has been taken from our hands. This is the only joy I am left with,” Ozkoc says, showing his cigarette. Another man sitting next to him says he will never smoke outside as the law dictates and will not pay the fine either.
“I have no money to pay fines. Will they take my soul?”
Editing by Charles Dick