They'll huff and puff, but not for long

ANKARA, Turkey — Like many Turkish men, Mevlut Ozhan spends a good deal of time at his local pub, puffing on Marlboros and swigging frothy beer from a thick glass. For the last 20 years, the civil servant has come to the Isik Piknik pub in Ankara's bustling Kizilay neighborhood every day after work to watch TV and socialize in the narrow, smoke-filled room.

Starting this summer, he may have to find a new routine.

On July 19, it will become illegal to light up in bars, restaurants and cafes here. For the country that inspired the phrase "to smoke like a Turk," it's a controversial step. The smoking ban is being praised by health advocates, but is bitterly opposed by many business owners and smokers, some of whom see the move as a government attempt to impose religious moral values on the entire population.

"The government is Islamic, and they want to shut down places like this," Ozhan said as he sat with two friends at Isik Piknik on a recent weekday evening. "I don't like it all, and heavy smokers like me won't like it either."

His friend, folk singer Ahmet Silvanli, disagreed, saying the legislation is about health, not religion. Grabbing Ozhan’s cigarettes, he pointed to the warning label on the box. “It’s bad for your health,” he said as curls of smoke wafted through the hazy air. “I quit smoking 27 years ago, and the smoke in here bothers me. It causes cancer.”

But Ozhan said it's unlikely he'll continue to come to the pub if he’s not allowed to smoke, and that has the owner, Ali Uluisik, worried.

"Turkey is not ready for this kind of law," Uluisik said as he sipped a glass of raki. "I think it's OK to ban smoking in government buildings, but they shouldn't prohibit it in places like this."

Uluisik said alcohol and cigarettes go hand in hand for many Turks. If they can't enjoy both together in a pub or cafe, he said, "it will push them to dark corners — they'll drink outside in parks or cars. It will be worse than if they were inside."

A couple of blocks over, Gul Cavus, owner of the trendy Cafe Cocktail Patisserie, had similar concerns. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said. "Already we're losing business because of the economic crisis."

But, Cavus added, she’s not sure the law will actually be enforced come July 19. "It's Turkey," she said, smiling. "We like to go against the rules."

Health advocates are hoping the legislation will be taken seriously, saying it will protect against secondhand smoke and encourage Turks to kick the habit altogether. Turkey has one of the highest cigarette consumption rates in the world, with about half of men and 20 percent of women smoking, according to the World Health Organization.

A 2003 WHO survey of roughly 16,000 Turkish teenagers revealed that 11 percent were regular smokers. About 30 percent had smoked their first cigarette before age 10. Officials estimate more than 100,000 die from tobacco-related illnesses every year, costing the country billions in healthcare.

Sercan Tokmak, manager of the Fincan Cafe, recently quit smoking and supports the ban. “I’m not comfortable with so much smoke around me,” he said. “I know it will be bad for business, but it’s good for health.”

The first phase of the law went into effect last May and made it illegal to smoke on public transportation and in workplaces and malls. Restaurants, bars and cafes were given an extra year to bring themselves into compliance with the law.

Turks who light up could face penalties of 50 lira (about $40), while business owners who permit tobacco use could be forced to pay up to 5,000 lira (about $3,200). But critics say enforcement has been lax and that many places that are supposed to be tobacco-free continue to allow smoking.

In the Mouse Cafe, an internet cafe where tobacco use is already illegal, the owner, Zeki Alicioglu, was chain-smoking Marlboros as he gave customers change. “I love smoking,” he said. “If they come and catch me, I can pay 5,000 lira.”

Alicioglu said government inspectors have dropped by two or three times in the past year but have never imposed fines. “They just come and ask some questions,” he said. “The rules are not really followed.”

Toker Erguder, director of tobacco control for the WHO in Turkey, denied that enforcement has proved difficult and said cafe and restaurant owners should not fear a downturn because similar laws have not crippled the hospitality industry in other countries.

Asked if he thought the smoking ban could improve Turkey’s chances at a European Union bid, Erguder pointed out that the law is among the most stringent in the region.

“I hope that now other European countries will follow Turkey," he said. "We have one of the best smoking legislations in Europe.”

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