Story by Lauryn Paiva // Photo by Erin Kelly
AMMAN, Jordan – Zeina Shahzada, an ex-smoker-turned-clear-air-activist, takes a deep breath as she gets ready to order a coffee at Wild Jordan Café, an eco-friendly restaurant just off trendy Rainbow Street.
She’s acutely aware that she’s enjoying a rare opportunity in the congested hotspots that populate this youthful city. She’s enjoying a drink without a side of smoke.
Shahzada, the founder of Women Against Indoor Smoking in Jordan, frequently holds meetings here, simultaneously exercising her right to clean air while mobilizing a movement aimed at regulating an all-but-ignored indoor smoking law enacted two years ago in the Hashemite Kingdom.
“[The group] is very focused on the implementation of the law that prohibits indoor smoking,” Shahzada said. “We have to find a way where the law is the law.”
Shahzada and other members of the group, discouraged by the public’s blatant disregard for the 2009 law, have been using social networking sites to put pressure on smokers and restaurants to implement the ban. In a region where cigarette smoke and the fruitier aroma of sheesha – smoked in a water pipe – are nearly impossible to avoid, shame has become their only weapon.
“I’ve had [smokers] tell me they go outside to smoke when they’re at a restaurant because they are afraid I will call them out on Twitter,” said group member Tala Haddadin.
Jordan’s Public Health Law prohibits smoking in public places such as restaurants, hospitals, schools, cinemas, libraries, museums, public buildings, public transport vehicles and airports. But in a country where smoking is not so much a hobby as standard operating procedure in both households and on the social scene, the law has had little effect. There are no regulations in place that actively enforce the ban.
Last month, The Ministry of Health announced a new initiative to crack down on the indoor smoking ban, aiming to enforce the law in ministries and public institutions.
“The Ministry of Health has played a big role in effectively controlling regulation and tax of tobacco products,” said Dr. Tatyana El-Kour, Amman-based advisor of Nutrition and Health Policy at the World Health Organization. “One of the biggest obstacles is the resistance of the actual citizens.”
Jordanians currently spend $370 million a year on tobacco products. According to a study conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing and Jordan University of Science and Technology, about 63 percent of males in Jordan smoke. About 10 percent of women do. A pack of cigarettes costs just over $4.
Another obstacle to enforcing the public health law may lie with health care providers in Jordan, 34 percent of whom are smokers themselves, according to Dr. Feras Hawari, the director of the Cancer Control Office at King Hussein Cancer Center in Amman.
While there are no statistical data to confirm the number of smoking-related deaths in the country, Hawari asserts that 23 percent of cancers in Jordanian males – such as laryngeal, lung and bladder – are directly linked to smoking.
Hawari urged that government officials need to set an example for the community by not smoking in public, in front of cameras and on live, televised meetings.
“It is illegal to smoke in public places, but because there is no human mechanism or dedicated party who oversees the implementation, there is non-compliance with that,” said Hawari.
Changing popular opinion in Jordan is one of the biggest impediments to maintaining the laws set forth by the Ministry of Health. Citizens are less inclined to refrain from smoking indoors when they regard it as a basic entitlement.
“The people of Jordan still view it as their right to smoke indoors,” said El-Kour. “They think if someone doesn’t like it, they should get out, when it should be the other way around.”
While Jordan struggles to physically enforce the indoor smoking policy, significant efforts have been made to deter younger people from gravitating toward smoking. There’s also more work being done to promote the treatment for nicotine addiction.
Organizations such as the Jordan Anti-Smoking society and the Global Bridges Healthcare Alliance aim to support smoke-free school environments, establish workshops for health care providers to decrease tobacco dependency, and establish counseling and a national hotline to provide treatment for tobacco addiction.
Women Against Indoor Smoking, dedicated to enforcing the Public Health Law, take aim at businesses that ignore the ban and put economic profit before public health.
“We’re going to redefine the no smoking sign,” Haddadin said.