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.