Lebanon News

Activists scuffle with restaurant over smoking law breaches

Activists from IndyAct hang a banner in front of the Enab restaurant in Mar Mikhael, protesting their continued violations of the smoking ban.

BEIRUT: Activists draped a banner in front of the Enab restaurant in Mar Mikhael Thursday morning, in protest against what they call continuous violations of Law 174, which prohibits smoking in public places.

The banner, which bears the proverb “Care for your neighbors before you care for yourself,” was hung from the IndyAct offices, which lie directly above the Lebanese restaurant, and accuses the venue of violating the tobacco ban which was introduced in full last September.

However, a couple of hours later, a manager of the restaurant and three staff members broke into the IndyAct offices to try and forcibly remove the banner, said Ali Fakhry, media officer for the non-governmental organization.

Enab staff refused to speak to the media, either about claims that they have repeatedly violated Law 174, or about breaking in to the IndyAct offices.

According to Fakhry, Enab staff had frequently told patrons that they had a special license exempting them from the law. No such license exists.

Other witnesses reported to The Daily Star that restaurant staff had told them the large open window meant the restaurant itself was “outside.” However, three open walls are necessary to constitute an exterior space.

Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, who bears partial responsibility for the implementation of the law, has said around 1,000 fines, of LL3 million each, have been handed down to restaurant owners – and some of these have been called to court to pay them. However, IndyAct says the government is not doing enough, and that many venues are repeatedly breaking the law, with no fear of punishment.

While many bars and restaurants are complying with the law, Fakhry said that “some, like Enab, are being led by the Syndicate of Restaurant Owners who is in turn being led by the tobacco industry,” and being actively encouraged to ignore the law. “They hope it will become a folkloric law, like the seatbelts law,” he added.

Around 3,500 people die in Lebanon each year due to smoking-related illnesses, making it the biggest killer in the country. However Fakhry said Thursday’s direct action was no longer about health, as everyone now knows how dangerous smoking is.

The law, he said, is symbolic, and if it is ignored by those in authority, it undermines the very meaning of democracy in Lebanon.

“The law was passed in the Parliament, by MPs that we voted for. If we allow the law to be broken ... what else can they ignore?”

Wednesday’s action, and the 9-meter banner publically naming and shaming the Enab restaurant, were not about singling out that particular restaurant, Fakhry said, but about attempting to raise public awareness surrounding the issue and encouraging citizens to play their part in ensuring that laws, and people’s rights, are respected.

“We truly believe that Lebanese people and most restaurant owners support the law and even though the government is not taking the law seriously, we are asking the public to take similar actions,” Fakhry added.

After Enab staff entered the IndyAct offices in an attempt to remove the banner Wednesday afternoon, members of the NGO called the police, Fakhry told The Daily Star. However, after members of the Internal Security Forces arrived they in fact told the activists that the banner was illegal.

When they asked which law they were violating by hanging the banner, no answer was given, Fakhry said.

A statement from IndyAct said that the NGO was currently following up on the break-in issue with its lawyers and the ISF. “Our sole concern is to show that we are all below the law and we refuse to violate any law like ... such restaurants are doing,” the statement added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 18, 2013, on page 4.

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