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Butt out: Iraqi Parliament considers sweeping smoking ban

By Mohammed Tawfeeq and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Iraqis question why the government is targeting smokers when insurgents still plague country
  • Iraqi lawmaker: "Even terrorist groups in the country have killed less Iraqis than smoking"
  • The Western-style law would ban smoking in most public places

Baghdad (CNN) -- Iraq's Parliament is considering a sweeping anti-smoking law that would ban lighting up in most public places, a proposal that has some questioning why the government is taking aim at smokers in a country where bombings and shootings are still common place.

The Western-style law would ban smoking in most public places, force cigarette companies to print health warning labels and ban cigarette advertising, a tall order in a country where cigarettes cost as little as 33 cents a pack and which boasts the highest smoking rate in the Middle East.

"Smoking a cigarette or hookah is the easiest thing to do in Iraq. Everything else is difficult, said 36-year-old Abu Ali, while sitting and smoking a hookah with friends at a sidewalk cafe in central Baghdad.

"We are not like Americans or European people. Iraqis have many other concerns to deal with on a daily basis. A smoking law will be difficult to apply in Iraq."

Parliament has taken its first step toward adopting the ban with a reading of the proposal, a step that lawmaker Jawad al-Bazouni says puts it on the fast track to becoming law in the coming weeks.

Al-Bazouni, one of 16 members of parliament's environment and health committee who authored the law, said he did not believe the ban would spark a controversy among lawmakers because it was a health issue.

"Smoking is a very important issue and it has killed many Iraqis," al-Bazouni said. "Even terrorist groups in the country have killed less Iraqis than smoking."

He did not offer any figures.

While violence has declined drastically in recent years in Iraq, it still remains a near daily occurrence.

On Thursday, dozens of people were killed and more wounded in three bombings in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraqi officials said.

Smoking is a very important issue. Even terrorist groups in the country have killed less Iraqis than smoking.
--Jawad al-Bazouni, Iraqi lawmaker
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  • Smoking
  • Iraq
  • Baghdad
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To become law, the ban would have to be adopted by parliament, which is still struggling to define its own procedures and deal with national security issues, such as the city of Kirkuk whose control is disputed by three ethnic groups -- Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

"Iraqi lawmakers need to find solutions for the unemployment crisis, the corruption, the national power shortages, the salary scale of government employees, traffic jams," said 54-year-old Sami Abed, who joined Ali at the Baghdad cafe.

"Iraqis have been through very difficult times in years past; and smoking is the only way to ease their pain."

Abed said many started smoking after the war began as a way to deal with the stress of the violence.

But 51-year-old Qassim Raheem disagreed with his friends, saying he supports such a law.

"Seriously, wherever I go I see people smoking on the streets, inside buses, in restaurants, in hospitals, in the workplace and even inside government offices," Raheem said.

"I am very concerned about my kids and that one day they will start smoking since it's allowed everywhere."

Iraq has attempted anti-smoking measures with limited success.

Smoking is banned in parliament and at Baghdad International Airport, though smokers can be spotted sneaking cigarettes in certain areas of the airport.

In 2009, parliament attempted to adopt a sweeping anti-smoking measure that would have banned smoking in private vehicles.

A year later, it attempted again to adopt a no-smoking policy similar to the one under consideration now.

"They should start negotiating sensitive issues that have a direct impact on Iraq's future," said Hussein Khan, the owner of a cigarette and hookah story in central Baghdad.

"What about the security situation in the country or the Kirkuk issue?"

Khan worries that a smoking ban will affect not only his business but the fragile economy. He sells packs of cigarettes that range anywhere from 500 Iraqi dinars, the equivalent of 43 cents, to 10,000 Iraqi dinars, about $8

"What about the national electricity shortages? It's been more than seven years and they cannot solve it," Khan said.

Standing at his counter, Khan ticked off a number of issues facing the country: the numerous security checkpoints, the terrorist attacks and the latest wave of assassinations that has seen insurgents dressed as Iraqi security forces attack and kill.

"If they think that the smoking ban law is a more important issue to be addressed rather than addressing all other essential issues in this country, then I have no confidence in my parliament," Khan said while rearranging cartons of cigarettes on the front shelf of his store.

But lawmaker al-Bazouni says "no law is less important than another law."

"But some laws are easier for some of the lawmakers than other laws that need a political decision," he said.

For Laith Ahmed, the ban is less about politics and more about his finances as owner of the al-Assri cafe, where Iraqi tea and hookahs are the order of the day.

Ahmed serves about 200 to 250 hookahs daily at a cost of about 4,000 Iraqi dinars each.

"I have five workers in this cafe who support their families. What will happen to them if this law goes into effect and I have to limit my business?" Ahmed said.

"There are hundreds of similar coffee shops across Baghdad which offer (employment) for thousands of people. What will happen to them? Can Iraqi lawmakers find them jobs?"

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq reported from Baghdad and Chelsea J. Carter from Atlanta.