Lebanon is not an Anarchy. The Law Still Means Something. (Updated)

A campaign admonishing the Lebanese to quit smoking in public places
On the eve of the smoking ban in Lebanon, I think it is worth talking about an issue that a lot of Lebanese regularly misrepresent online and in their everyday conversations: Is Lebanon a country where the law is casually ignored and not enforced?

The easy caricature is that Lebanon is a country where the law doesn’t apply. It is reinforced by politics, where powerful groups commit crimes in public and demonstrators block roads and burn tires with abandon as law enforcement stands by doing nothing. It is also reinforced by by a general portrayal in popular culture of a country in anarchy. But is this an accurate perception?

Black holes, not a black country

Think of this common statement: “Nobody pays taxes in Lebanon”. Do you really believe it? Maybe you don’t pay taxes, maybe Abu Ali the grocer doesn’t pay taxes. But do you really believe that Unilever Lebanon, or ABC shopping mall don’t pay their taxes? The truth is, Lebanon is not entirely a place where the law doesn’t apply. There are areas where the law is still too weak to advance, but those are the exceptions.

It is a myth that the government can’t enforce a ban on smoking. People somehow believe that the police will have to go from bar to bar to check on the ban. But that’s not how enforcement works. All you need is a couple of high-profile punishments of known outfits and the rest will immediately fall in line. It only takes a well written law and the right incentives to make the ban stick.


Lebanese restaurants will have to deal with the ban, because unlike faceless demonstrators and underground CD bootleggers, they are known legal entities with fixed addresses. They are a prime target for greedy police officers looking for bribes to turn a blind eye on unlawful smoking. Restaurateurs will calculate that following the ban will be cheaper for them than the bottomless hole of paying bribes.

Normal people will say on facebook and twitter that the smoking ban is a joke, but to the restaurant owners who will be targeted by the ban, this is no joking matter: They just paid money to Ernst and Young to produce a fancy infographic about how harmful the smoking ban will be on the Lebanese economy. If the law really didn’t mean anything, why would they bother?

Update: In a comment on this post, Ziad Kamel, an important player in the restaurants scene in Lebanon, reminds us that we shouldn’t forget that the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs & Pastries in Lebanon actually supports the smoking ban, and that such an omission implies a lack of balance in this post. Read his entire comment here.

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  • http://thepresentperfect.wordpress.com Lindsay

    Fingers crossed for this one, Mustapha. I HOPE, I HOPE, it works! It will make me very happy to go to a bar/restaurant and not come home smelling like an ash tray.

    Do you know if the ban includes places like grocery stores, banks, other public places?

    • Mustapha

      Well, it’s supposed to include all “closed areas”, so I join you in finger crossing.. (PS: loved the Asia pics)

    • http://www.nowlebanon.com Matt

      Lindsay, in those places, smoking has been illegal since September 3, 2011. If places you frequent are not complying, there are a few numbers you can call to report them: ministries of Interior, Health, Tourism and Economy 112, 1214, 1735 and 1739, respectively. Also, the law defines a “closed public place” as anywhere with two or more walls and a ceiling.

  • Shhhhhhhh

    You hope, you hope, that the bottomless pit of endless bribes will be the solution!!? Down side, Lebanese police are all corrupt. Upside, I smell pretty in bars. Seems like an even trade.

  • http://oussama-hayek.blogspot.com/ OH

    You make a fair point. But the problem is that one of the people raising doubts is one of the very same people responsible for enforcement. Daily Star:

    ” Dr. George Saade, coordinator of the National Tobacco Control Program, which falls under the Health Ministry, admits that…:
    “In Lebanon, in a country where systems do not exist, and laws are not respected, where armed personnel can kidnap people with no fear, how can you tell people not to smoke?”

    Or maybe the great PR plan is to lower expectations enough so that we are pleasantly surprised?

    • Mustapha

      That would be devilish, wouldn’t it? One of the reasons I’m writing this is for people to get a bit more perspective when they talk about this.
      You’re right, one of the responsibilities of the enforcers is ignore that tired tradition of low expectations..

      • http://oussama-hayek.blogspot.com/ OH

        Is the EY study public somewhere? I’m fascinated by the infographic, but I am stumped as to how they came up with the estimates. I would love to see that equation used estimate the elasticity of restaurant food and beverage demand to tobacco consumption;)

      • http://www.nowlebanon.com Matt

        OH, those figures are an opinion survey based on what syndicate members THINK will happen. Economic impact of bans is a hotly debated subject. From a few hours’ research, my personal conclusion is that some business will suffer, but there does not seem to be a real threat of economic meltdown.

  • Observer

    The ban will not work in the long run. Dubai is an example.

    There was a complete ban on smoking in all restaurants in Dubai around 2006-7, that no longer is the case today.

    I passed through Beirut International Airport (can’t get used to it being called Hariri) 4 weeks ago and the Security officer at the first luggage check was smoking.

    I would guesstimate that 70% of Government employees are smokers. The stench of smoke in Govt. buildings is notorious. Just go to the Beirut Baladieh. Coffee without cigarettes while discussing the bribe !?

    A smoking “license” will probably be the way the Govt will go on this subject in a year or two.

    No. Lebanon is not an Anarchy. It is a country that works on the laws of demand and supply and the costs of making these ends meet.

    Apparently, $170,000 was the market price Samaha estimated to plant some explosive devices around the North.

    *** Him and Assad obviously no longer live in the real world. That money doesn’t even get you a studio in Beirut today. ***

  • Observer

    It costs Iran well over $500million a year to maintain a Lebanese militia in Lebanon and that’s short-change for oil regimes at today’s oil prices.


  • Observer

    And if March 14 had any morals, they should be the first ones to advocate renaming Rafiq Hariri International Airport back to Beirut International Airport … and in its stead place his effigy on the world’s first exclusive Million Lebanese Lira note and set a Guinness Book of World Records for the highest value placed on a publicly traded piece of paper.

  • Observer

    The day the Iranian Touman is widely accepted as a means of exchange in Beirut or any parts of Lebanon (or even Syria) is the day I would suggest people think about an alternative future outside Lebanon … or embracing a new “ideology”.

  • romeo

    I am surprised that a respectable company such as E&Y creates an infographic with dubious numbers. And by the way, can someone please calculate the savings in the Health Sector? All these lung, oesophageal, and mouth cancers that will be prevented. Oh…E&Y, while you’re at it, can you please put a $ value on life? Why not? You do know that smoke kills…and your numbers suck.

  • merry

    I think we should punish the government for their actions not them applying the smoking ban so although not a smoker I will go from bar to bar and smoke ,how will they enforce the law ,I won’t be holding my id

  • merry

    And I won’t be filling their pockets ,I will smoke as long as I can in front of them with the smoke covering their dirty corrupt faces

  • Caustic

    Actually, the best thing about the smoking ban is that it allows people like myself to “lawfully” ask smokers to extinguish their cigarettes, which I always do when I have my kids with me. I am not an unreasonable person, I do not take my kids to places I know will be full of smoke, and I always ask if there is a non smoking section in a restaurant, or sit outside whenever possible. But when I make an effort to take my kids to a place, I usually dislike, only because it is a non smoking establishment, and I see people smoking in it, you will be sure I will make them put it off.

    • http://www.nowlebanon.com Matt

      Caustic, I think that’s actually a big part of why the ban has a decent chance of working (even if maybe not working 100% on every inch of Lebanese soil). Despite corruption and whatnot, non-smokers still outnumber smokers in Lebanon and the potential for public/patron pressure on bars and restaurants could prove more effective than fines. Now that the law supports non-smokers, they’ll have a case to argue.

  • http://www.thealleyway.org Ziad Kamel

    “They just paid money to Ernst and Young to produce a fancy infographic about how harmful the smoking ban will be on the Lebanese economy. If the law really didn’t mean anything, why would they bother?”

    Dear Mustapha,

    You have failed to mention in your blog post that the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs & Pastries in Lebanon SUPPORTS the Smoking Ban Law and the owners are willing and ready to implement it. I understand that by polarizing the issue on the blog post (those with vs those against), you will gain a higher readership however the facts should be stated, as they have been successfully stated in other published media.

    No restaurant owner argues that smoking should be permitted within closed areas of a restaurant or any other public, closed space. The Syndicate is merely stating the current law is incomplete as it does not take into considerations special exemptions & permits for Shisha Cafes, Cigar Lounges and Nightlife that are applied within Smoking Ban Laws of developed countries such as UAE, Qatar, USA, France, Germany. Why would an avid non smoker visit a Shisha Cafe?

    The Syndicate would like to see just 2% of the current law modified accordingly giving special, taxable licenses based on technical requirements to establishments whose main source of income is generated from tobacco, such as Shisha Cafes and Cigar Lounges.

    If the Lebanese government really cares about the health of people, why does Lebanon have some of the cheapest cigarettes in the world?


    • Bob

      Your reaction has been pathetic.
      So you support the ban except for shisha lounges, cigar lounges, bar, pubs and nightclubs.
      your reason? there are country that have exceptions for cigar lounges.
      Fine. Name one country that has exceptions for bar, pubs and nightclubs…

      stop with your bullshit of 2% and the you support the ban but.. you are asking to render the law meaningless.. And whoever did that study at E&Y should be fired. Smoking ban laws are one of most studied subjects in business schools around the world and the results are very clear. nowhere near what this report says.

      So instead of spreading populist bullshit and commissioning your attack dogs to publish press releases on their blogs, get your shit together and see how you can adapt your business how the law should be. It will be better for you, your customers and your employees.

    • Observer

      “If the Lebanese government really cares about the health of people, why does Lebanon have some of the cheapest cigarettes in the world?”

      That’s because it would have encouraged cigarette smuggling from Syria. Lots of issues related to taxation was determined by the bilateral relations we had with Syria for 30 years. The car import tax is an example.

  • Observer

    My question is, who will enforce that law at the McDad cafe in Dahiyeh?

    And by the way, CD bootleggers have fixed addresses all over Lebanon too. Just ask any Police Officer where he buys his kids’ DVDs to point you to the one with best quality and the latest releases.

  • Nat

    respect to business activity, over 160
    studies have examined these issues,
    applying diverse analytic methods
    to a variety of data from hospitality
    sector businesses in numerous jurisdictions, and they have been compiled
    (Scollo & Lal, 2008) in an update of
    the previous comprehensive review
    on the impact of smoke-free policies
    in this sector (Scollo et al., 2003;
    Scollo & Lal, 2005, 2008).
    Studies of the impact of smoke-free
    policies on the hospitality sector vary
    considerably in their methodological
    quality, with the best of these studies
    sharing most or all of the following
    • Use of valid, reliable measures
    of business activity (e.g. official
    reports of sales tax or business
    revenues, employment, and/or
    the number of licensed establishments; population level,
    representative survey data) that
    can be used to detect the real
    impact of a change resulting from
    the adoption of a smoke-free
    • Use of data for several years
    covering the period before and
    after the implementation of a
    smoke-free policy, in order to
    separate out the impact of the
    policy from underlying trends in
    business activity, and to allow
    sufficient time for businesses,
    smokers, and nonsmokers to
    adapt their behaviour to the
    • Use of appropriate statistical
    methods that include controls
    for underlying trends in the data,
    and other factors that lead to
    fluctuations in business activity
    (most notably, overall economic
    conditions), and that apply
    appropriate tests for the statistical
    significance of the relationship
    between the policy and measure
    of business activity;
    • Inclusion of data from
    comparable jurisdictions where
    no policy changes occurred
    that can act as controls for the
    jurisdiction(s) where the policy
    change(s) being assessed took
    While many of the studies to
    date share these characteristics,
    others do not. The findings from
    studies that use less reliable data,
    fail to control for overall economic
    activity, or otherwise deviate from
    these guidelines, are mixed in their
    conclusions about the economic
    impact of smoke-free policies. In
    contrast, as described below, the
    findings from studies with these
    characteristics consistently find that
    smoke-free policies have no negative
    economic impact on restaurants, bars,
    and other segments of the hospitality
    industry, with the possible exception
    of gaming establishments. Indeed,
    many studies provide evidence of a
    small positive effect of smoke-free
    policies on business activity.

  • Nat

    So we want to see what Ernst & Young used as a methodology….other than people’s unfounded OPINIONS!!!! put into numbers to give a false impression of facts!!

  • http://gravatar.com/armigatus Armigatus

    One more step in the 1000 kilometers journey into becoming a civilized country.