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Cairo smokers shocked by sex warning

In a country of smokers that shuns talk of sex, anti-tobacco warnings highlighting impotence draw fire.

An Egyptian man smokes a water pipe in a coffee shop in Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, Feb. 28, 2009. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

CAIRO, Egypt — A picture may be worth a thousand words, but many Egyptians are speechless over an image that recently hit the streets in this bustling capital city.

Last month, Egypt’s Ministry of Health unveiled their latest weapon in the war on smoking: a graphic warning label of a drooping cigarette, symbolizing the potential for tobacco-induced impotence, plastered on every pack sold throughout the country.

Next to the picture of the limp butt, a statement in Arabic warns, “long-term smoking will affect marital relations.”

It wasn’t the first such graphic message to illustrate the dangers of smoking, but for many Egyptian men, it was the first they had heard of a connection between impotence and tobacco.

And among some of the heaviest smokers, confusion gave way to bravado.

“We know smoking is not good for the health, but I can’t believe this,” said Nadir Abdel Rahim, 40, from the Darb el-Ahmar neighborhood. “I’ve been smoking 22 years, and I work just fine. Very fine, actually.”

But in this male-dominated society, many men were more concerned for Egyptian women, shocked that they could so easily see a reference alluding to sex.

Mohamed El-Gamal, 33, from the working class Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, said he’d never let his sisters near the warning label.

In a conservative society like Egypt, for both Muslims and Christians, speaking openly about sex in public is frowned upon.

Women, who constitute only a tiny fraction of Egypt’s smoking population, were also embarrassed and offended by the "racy" image.

“What were they thinking to use a picture like this?” said Sally Kandil, 32, a smoker of 13 years. “It’s just too much for a country like ours,” she said, hiding a giggle.

It was a bold move by a government eager to curb a growing phenomenon that seems to be such a routine part of life in Egypt.

Smokers have almost free reign, whether in restaurants, at the cinema, in between train cars or even while waiting at the doctor’s office. Being offered a cigarette from a stranger on the street is as common as an invitation to a cup of tea.