Lebanon lights up
Tobacco companies in the US and Britain must be having a field day. In Lebanon, they have found the perfect market for their products. While Westerners are recoiling from the horrors of lung cancer and refusing to light up, the Lebanese seem to be developing ever-stronger ties to tobacco.
The more aggressively Americans and Europeans fight the tobacco industry, the more aggressive tobacco advertising campaigns become in developing countries.
All along roads in Lebanon, billboards show rugged-looking men smoking and enjoying the outdoors. Television spots barely take a rest from calling the young to the wonderful world of smoking. If that weren’t enough, tobacco companies sponsor youth activities – one even organized healthy hikes in the mountains! And just in case young people still don’t get the message, the companies actually infiltrate youth hangouts.
It has become a common sight to see cafés and nightclubs filled with young, beautiful women giving out free cigarettes. Wearing embarrassingly tight outfits, the women reward those who light up with sweet smiles. Equally handsome men clad in shirts imprinted with the tobacco brand they represent grin mischievously at girls as they offer them packs of free cigarettes.
In one nightclub, I cringed as I watched three teenagers – none older than 16 – light up the free cigarettes, cough and puff again. Hoping to look cool, they dangled the cigarettes from their fingers and gave what they imagined were sexy smiles to passers-by.
It wasn’t over yet. The beautiful women then gave out forms for the new smoking recruits to fill in – a fun quiz based on questions about the cigarette brand. Winners received caps and T-shirts with the tobacco brand emblazoned across and of course, even more cigarettes.
By the early hours of the morning hundreds of young people were leaving, their pockets well filled with cigarettes. Presentation of empty packs gets them big discounts when buying tickets for rock concerts.
US research has found that the surge in teenage smoking in America coincided with a sharp expansion by tobacco companies using give-away items in return for smoking their brand name. Unless Lebanese teenagers prove somehow resistant to such influences, we can look forward to similar results in this country.
When I contacted an anti-smoking organization in Britain its director was all too familiar with these tactics.
‘They are extremely common,’ he said. ‘They’re clearly targeting young people. They associate smoking with an exciting, youthful life. They get them to smoke to the point that they get addicted. Once they’re addicted, they have a customer for life.’
‘Developing countries, and the Middle East in particular,’ he continued, ‘are seen as an absolutely lucrative market for the big American and West European tobacco companies. They want to get in that market and aggressively capture it to replace the market they are leaving in Europe and the United States.’
In that case, tobacco companies must feel right at home in Lebanon. Advertising regulations are loose, people are only vaguely aware of the dangers of smoking, and – most important – tobacco companies can survive without having to deal with anti-smoking organizations.
To give the Lebanese Government some credit, a law was passed five years ago requiring cigarette packages to carry warning labels. It also required advertisements in newspapers, magazines, films, television and billboards to allocate 15 per cent of the advertisement area to the warning. Technically, smoking is banned in public buildings – but I have yet to see anyone enforcing it.
And at $0.60 a pack smoking is now a very inexpensive activity. According to the Ministry of Health, 60 per cent of the Lebanese smoke. Nearly half of them are women. The average Lebanese smoker consumes around 3,300 cigarettes each year – about 165 packs.
As for passive smoking, it remains a largely unheard-of concept. In my own smoke-riddled newspaper office where journalists worked more than 12 hours a day, the smoke was so thick that our eyes would sting, our throats would go sore and our clothes smelled for days. Temptation prompted many foreigners who had previously quit smoking to take up the habit again. Joined by some other non-smoking colleagues, plus those who found it difficult to quit in a smoking environment, a mini-war began. A few months later – after several petitions and negotiations – smoking in the office only became permissible after 9pm.
True, it was only a small victory. But it’s a start.