Experts believe the ban on smoking in public places, which comes into effect on 21 April, will improve people’s health and ultimately reduce national health service costs.
Considered far-reaching, it bans smoking in restaurants, airports and all other public places; offenders caught breaking the law will be fined the equivalent of about US$45.
According to the Syrian Centre for Tobacco Studies (SCTS), a research organization based in Aleppo, 59 percent of adult males and 23 percent of adult females in Syria smoke. “It is an epidemic,” said Fouad Mohammad Fouad, SCTS coordination officer.
The average citizen spends 6.8 percent of his or her annual income of around $3,000 on 3.6kg of tobacco a year, according to the SCTS. Lung cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in Syria, according to a UICC World Cancer Conference held in 2006.
The water pipe, also known in the region as the 'nargileh' or 'shisha', is now becoming popular with young people and is believed to be a vector for tuberculosis. The new law envisages significant curbs on its use.
SCTS is calling on the government to raise the price of cigarettes by as much as 100 percent.
A ban on advertising tobacco was introduced in 1996, but a major problem, according to Fouad of SCTS is that “the establishment is funding Syria’s tobacco industry… Cigarettes make a lot of money for the government and I don’t know if they will be on our side.” Restaurants are still encouraging people to smoke, he said.
In 2006 the sale of tobacco to people under 18 was outlawed, but is widely flouted.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is involved in a programme to eradicate smoking in the village of Maten al-Sahel in the northwest, and says some success has been achieved, with 600 people having given up the habit by June 2009.
The prevalence of cancers among Syrians, many of them smoking related, puts a great burden on an already overstretched public healthcare system.
In 2006 Syria spent 3.9 percent of its gross domestic product on health compared to 9.9 percent and 8.9 percent in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon respectively.
According to WHO, there were 1,148 cases of trachea, lung, and bronchus cancer per every 100,000 males in 2000.
Fouad believes a well-implemented ban on smoking in public places will eventually have a positive effect on people's health, and consequently on the country's health system. “A reduction in the number of people smoking will mean a decrease in the number of people through hospital doors, thus freeing up space for other patients and money for the government."
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