From the moment visitors step outside of the airport and onto a Jordanian sidewalk, they are greeted with the sight of a row of taxi drivers, chain smoking their way through the tedium of the day. It almost doesn’t matter where they ask the driver to take them; cigarette smoke is inescapable, from coffee shops to hotel lobbies, from public buses to public bathrooms. Spending a few hours running errands in Amman, Jordan, you’re as likely to see men, women and teenagers smoking as you are to see no-smoking signs. Perhaps it is this blatant disregard for privately-imposed policies that makes people skeptical that the newly-enforced legal ban on smoking in public places will ever really take hold.
“I don’t see a ban working here,” said G.K., 21, a recent University of West England graduate. “In England, they’re used to obeying rules and regulations. Here, the first time that someone tells a guy he can’t smoke, the man will probably pick a fight and hit him.”
The amended Public Health Law, which was ratified in late 2008, has certainly been slow to gain traction. It was not enforced at all before March 2009, when the Ministry of Health announced that violating the all but ignored no-smoking signs in the nation’s airports and malls would now constitute a legal offence, resulting in either a 15-25 JD fine or up to a month in prison. Three months later, the ban was implemented in fast food restaurants, and on May 25, 2010, more than a year after the law was originally endorsed by parliament, the Ministry announced that the smoking ban would now be enforced in all indoor, public places. At least, that was until the Ministry decided to grant a grace period to restaurant owners for them to adjust to the ban. The ban is now supposed to have been enforced in full starting July 1.
Although he has his doubts about the nation’s ability to enforce the ban, G.K. says that he supports the decision to prohibit smoking in public buildings. “Even though I smoke, I know how it feels to have someone blowing smoke in your face.” He does not agree, however, with the ministry’s decision to include hookah smoking in the ban. The hookah, otherwise known as hubbly bubbly, is a cultural staple of social gatherings and is commonly smoked in restaurants. In fact, the promise of a good hookah, which can be flavored using different syrup-tobacco combos, is often enough to attract crowds of customers. “Cigarette smoke sticks to your clothes, but hookah smoke can smell good. It’s less harmful to the people around the smoker.” G.K. also touts the hookah as a tourist attraction. “It’s an experience just to try it.”
But what Jordan gains in tourism is probably not enough to offset the heavy costs of smoking to the nation. According to Ministry of Health figures, Jordanians spend 360 million JDs a year on tobacco, as well as almost the same amount on treating smoking-related diseases. This is not surprising, considering that, according to a survey conducted by the National Jordanian Anti-Smoking Society last April, about 21 percent of students aged 13 to 18 smoke either cigarettes or hookah, despite the fact that neither can be legally sold to children below the age of 18.
“The main objective of the ban is to maintain public health,” said Health Ministry Spokesperson Hatem Azruie. “Non-smokers have the right to breathe clean air.” However, he also says that living in a non-smoking country will help people to smoke less. “When you work eight hour days as an employee at the ministry, for example, where there is no area where smoking is permitted, this automatically helps you to quit or to reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke in a day.”
In its efforts to curb smoking, the ministry has also begun offering free consultations and nicotine substitutes to smokers who are trying to kick the habit. According to Azruie, the ministry plans to establish more locations to help smokers quit throughout the Kingdom in the near future. The first step, however, is admitting that you have a problem.
F.M., 20, who goes from smoking a hookah up to three times a week in the summer to almost never in the winter, doesn’t know if she considers herself a smoker or not. She is sure, however, that a ban on indoor hookah smoking will not be successful. “If 90 percent of the people in a country smoke, it will be impossible for [a public smoking ban] to work out.” She is against implementing the ban, particularly where the hookah is concerned. “I don’t always like to sit outside when I smoke hookah so that everyone can see me.” Although hookah cafes are filled with female customers, there are still some cultural taboos surrounding women and smoking.
“It’s not feminine at all,” said X.R., 26, assistant director of finance at the Sheraton. X.R., a non-smoker herself, supports the idea of banning smoking, in Jordan and beyond. “People who smoke are selfish and they don’t care about people with sensitivity to the smoke, “said X.R.. “It’s your own fault if you want to suffocate yourself; why should you suffocate me along with you?”
According to Azruie, since life was breathed anew into the public smoking ban last May, about 50 violators of the law have been referred to the court. Meanwhile, the Jordan Restaurants Association has been pushing for more leeway. On June 20, representatives of the JRA reportedly met with ministry officials to ask for more time before the implementation of the ban, but their request was denied. Bassam Hijjawi, director of the ministry’s primary healthcare directorate, reiterated that, as of July 1, the ministry of health will “no longer excuse restaurants that fail to implement the smoking ban and will refer violators to court,” the Jordan Times reported on Wednesday.
It’s impossible to say whether or not the ban will stick this time around. As of July 2, restaurant’s are still allowing indoor smoking.