Iraq goes from Saddam to smoking ban

IN A country where the power supply blinks off several times a day, where filling up on petrol can take hours and motorists stew in endless traffic jams, smoking is one pursuit that seems blissfully easy.

A pack of cigarettes costs as little as 15p. They are everywhere, sold from mud-brick sheds along main roads, from card tables set up on city pavements and at countless shops throughout Baghdad. And you can light up almost anywhere, in buses, lifts and hospitals, even inside Iraq's parliament.

But following the lead of Scotland, the rest of Britain, France, America and other western nations, Iraqi MPs are now seeking to marginalise smoking in public life, much to the annoyance of many of their constituents.

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Today they are set to consider a law banning smoking in schools, universities, government offices and a wide range of private businesses, including restaurants and cafs. Hoardings advertising cigarettes, which wallpaper the business areas of Baghdad, would be outlawed. And cigarette companies would be forced to print more explicit health warnings on labels.

"This is an important issue," said Jawad al-Bazouni, a member of the parliament's health committee, which is pushing for the new controls. "The citizen can complain to the smoker. He will get the law on his side, and it will be reflected in public health."

But some Iraqis view the effort a waste of time by MPs who have dithered on more vital issues, such as whether US troops should be allowed to stay past a withdrawal deadline of next January.

In the six months since competing factions patched together a partnership government, Iraq's parliament has passed about ten laws, none of them as controversial.

MPs have passed a budget, cancelled some Saddam Hussein-era measures and moved to cut their own pay and increase some public spending in response to calls for reform.

Politicians in the Shia-led government have also made impassioned speeches defending fellow Shiite protesters in Bahrain, and even took a day off in solidarity. After a tortured debate, they approved a procedure for picking vice presidents, but have yet to agree on one.

Throughout this, Iraq's leaders have moved slowly on resolving the status of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, an oil-rich prize and one of Iraq's biggest trouble spots. They have not appointed ministers to lead the army and police, leaving a vacuum some Iraqis blame for a spike in assassinations and other violence.

"There are more important issues they should be considering," said Aboud al-Dulaimi, sitting with two friends outside a hookah bar in downtown Baghdad. "The government needs to pass laws to serve the people. They have more than three million unemployed, and they are busy with such laws."

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Sitting beside him, Abbas al-Janabi took a drag and declared: "It's stupidity."

Janabi, 46, said he had been a pack-a-day smoker in the 15 years before the 2003 US-led invasion. But in the chaos that ensued, which shut down his factory, forced him to sell his house and move abroad, he said he began smoking more.

Now back in Baghdad after a brief exile in Dubai and Syria and living in a small flat, Janabi said he burned through four packs a day as he scavenged for work. He knows the habit may kill him, but he treats it with a fatalism common in Iraq.

He said: "I know a cigarette will kill me one day, but I can't do anything about it. I may get killed tomorrow. It's just fate."

Parliament tried such a move once before, in 2009, but dropped the measure. A bill was reintroduced in April, and MPs have scheduled a second reading for today, a necessary step towards it becoming law.

Although smoking rates in Iraq lag far behind those in China, Russia and eastern Europe, few women or devout Muslims smoke, meaning that the rate among men is considerably higher. With Iraq's cigarette consumption among the highest in the Middle East, smoking is easily Baghdad's most widespread vice.

Bars and public alcohol consumption have rebounded from more violent times as Iraq's streets have become safer at night, but Islamic prohibitions on drink and raids of nightclubs have limited the spread of alcohol. At most cafs and restaurants, Iraqis sip fruit juice or tea instead of alcohol, and content themselves with cigarettes and shisha — flavoured tobacco from ornate water pipes.

Ali Assan Ali said his shisha caf would be devastated by a ban on smoking in public places, adding he had spent 250,000 to open the business and renovate a second-floor space. He said the proposed smoking restrictions were too broad. "This is my life, this is my health," he added.

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Nearby sat four friends, who expressed a similar view. "We are Iraqi," said Rami Sabah, 19. "We like the shisha and smoking. It's a good place for young people to just waste time."

His friend Baraa Ghazi, 27, offered a broader opinion as he took a languid drag. "This," he said, "is freedom."