Men smoke water pipes at a cafe in the Jordanian capital Amman
© AFP
Men smoke water pipes at a cafe in the Jordanian capital Amman
Khaled Alaswad
Last updated: August 20, 2016

The politics of smoking in today’s Middle East

Banner Icon Convincing Middle Easterners to quit smoking, especially when so many rely on cigarettes and shishas as critical stress relief in a time of political and economic turmoil, would be a challenge even with effective policies and strategies, writes Khaled Alaswad. As Turkey, ISIS, and Iran have all proved, ham-handed paternalism or state-sponsored brutality will never be effective alternatives.

Of all the totalitarian edicts imposed by the “Islamic State” (otherwise known as ISIS or Daesh), its brutal smoking ban is the most evident of the group’s cognitive dissonance. Striking images of bonfires consuming seized cigarettes and alcohol, shared online by the group itself, give a visceral sense of the control the self-proclaimed caliphate tries to exert over the local population. Its official punishments for such an ungodly activity, based on the group’s interpretation of sharia, include flogging, jailing, and execution. Just a few days ago, ISIS militants arrested over 50 men for smoking cigarettes in Yarmouk, to the south of Damascus in Syria. In eastern Syria, one of the group’s own officials was beheaded with a cigarette in his mouth. 

Even so, a closer look at life under the caliphate reveals a much more complex picture. For local residents and some more business-minded members of ISIS, smuggling cigarettes into places like Raqqa has become a lucrative (if risky) way of making money. Demand for cigarettes exists not only among the suffering people of Raqqa, but also among some of those same ISIS members officially towing the party line—a line which considers smoking to be haram and a form of “slow suicide.” After making initial territorial gains in the Iraqi province of Kirkuk, ISIS officials were forced to back down from their smoking ban in order to make amends with the local population in the face of attacks from Iraqi security forces and their international allies. 

ISIS is the most extreme in its methods, but it is not the only actor in the region to take a hardline on tobacco. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is well known for his aggressive, highly personalized anti-smoking campaign, personally shaming smokers he encounters and extracting pledges to quit alongside a name and phone number he can use to follow up. He has done this so many times that Turkish news sites offer photo galleries dedicated to the encounters. Erdogan has taken his efforts even further, pushing Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov to quit smoking at July’s NATO conference in Warsaw. Though seemingly harmless, this behavior helps demonstrate Erdogan’s ambition to be “father” to the Turkish nation and fill the symbolic vacuum left by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In Turkey, for example, it is considered bad manners to smoke in the presence of one’s father. Even so, implementation of Turkey’s 2008 smoking ban has been uneven at best.

 

As ISIS found out in Kirkuk and Erdogan has realized in Turkey, convincing Middle Easterners to quit smoking is an uphill battle. Among the Turkish people, poverty and economic struggles have only increased already high rates of tobacco consumption. On a cultural level, Turks, Arabs, and Persians all love to smoke, and shisha pipes in particular are an especially well-loved traditional pastime. The Iranian reformist daily Sharq, for its part, landed itself in hot water last month by running a photo of the late Ayatollah Mahmud Taleghani in which it photoshopped a cigarette out of his hand. Taleghani, a key figure in Iran’s 1979 revolution, was a notorious and unabashed chain smoker; the photo itself is famous and instantly recognizable to many in Iran. Sharq’s self-censorship has been widely criticized by Iran’s social media users, although the paper’s editor defended its decision by pointing out the need for self-censorship in the Iranian press. In Iran, the judiciary and other officials can and do forcibly close down publications for publishing content they disagree with, and reformist publications are kept on the shortest leash.

Oddly enough, by instituting stringent but ill-enforced smoking bans, Middle Eastern governments (or quasi-governments, like ISIS) are likely more in line with the international health community than they are with local populations. The distance between public health bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and realities on the ground was thrown into stark relief by a June report from the WHO’s Syria representative, who implored Syrians to abstain from smoking cigarettes. At a time when tens of thousands of Syrians are struggling for the bare necessities of survival and face murder, torture, and even enslavement at the hands of their own government or the Islamic State, the pronouncement left both local and Western observers flabbergasted.

Of course, Middle Eastern governments aren’t the only ones struggling with their tobacco control policies. The European Commission recently decided not to renew a longstanding anti-trafficking agreement with tobacco giant Philip Morris, in part out of concern over violating rules spelled out by the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) that discourage relationships between tobacco companies and the policy process—even though the article 5.3 in question and other FCTC rules are non-binding, and many of the European member states backed a renewal. In Turkey, which has always been a major conduit for contraband flowing between Europe and Asia, Erdogan pursued his anti-smoking zeal with a 30% increase in tobacco excise taxes in 2010, followed up by additional increases on a yearly basis after that. The result? Cigarette smuggling received a shot in the arm, and the number of illegal cigarettes in the country spiked from 3.9 billion in 2007 to 16.2 billion in 2013. Erdogan’s government ultimately lost $9.5 billion in tax revenue to the illegal cigarette trade over a five-year span. 

Convincing Middle Easterners to quit smoking, especially when so many rely on cigarettes and shishas as critical stress relief in a time of political and economic turmoil, would be a challenge even with effective policies and strategies. As Turkey, ISIS, and Iran have all proved, ham-handed paternalism or state-sponsored brutality will never be effective alternatives.

Khaled Alaswad is a Jordanian-born risk management consultant who has been working out of Abu Dhabi for the past five years. Before that, he lived in the United States while completing a degree in public policy.

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