Anti-smoking regulations in April, but who will enforce them? - 1/2/2004

From the Malta Independent of Sunday

Karl Schembri

They will come into force on 5 April this year, we’ve been told by the Health Promotion Department. From that day onwards, nobody can smoke in public places, including bars, nightclubs, restaurants, offices and work premises. Those who break the law will be fined Lm100 or more. Those who own the premises can end up spending up to three months in jail, where they will probably be banned from smoking given that prison is a public institution.

That’s quite a bleak future for all smokers on the islands. They will end up segregated in restaurants catering for smokers. They will have to line up on the steps outside their office buildings to have a smoke between meetings. The really committed smokers will have to defy the rain and cold wintry winds to take their dose of nicotine outside on the pavement. Corridors, lobbies, stairwells and cafeterias are out of bounds to smokers. From 5 April onwards, smokers have to do it in private, whatever the substance involved.

But who is going to enforce these laws?

“Like with all other laws, it is up to the police,” said the Health Minister’s spokesman.

Right, such as the laws prohibiting minors from drinking? Or the drinking limits for drivers? Or hunting laws, for that matter?

“If that’s the attitude the public is going to take then the laws won’t make much of a change,” he admitted.

A spokesman at the Home Affairs Ministry also admitted that a cultural attitude towards smoking will have to change before the laws can be effective. The government does not intend to act like a police State, he said. At this stage the laws are more intended to promote self-regulation rather than imposed in a Draconian way.

Police sources said the Commissioner had not yet figured out whether he was intended to hunt down smokers in bars and nightclubs or just act upon reports and wherever police officers happen to notice infringements. Answering questions sent last week to the police force, a spokesman said all police officers will be entrusted with implementing the new regulations.

“There will be no particular section checking where smoking isn’t permitted since all members and sections (of the police) will be involved in this enforcement,” the spokesman said.

In any case, the police corp cannot afford to mobilise any of its sections specifically to curb smoking in public places.

Some parts that will be covered by the new regulations are already no-go areas for smokers. Hospitals, the Law Courts, buses, cinemas, many bank branches, parts of the airport, schools and churches are widely accepted as non-smoking places. But bars, nightclubs, discotheques and restaurants are another thing altogether. It is going to be difficult to convince pensioners having their early morning glass of tea in a corner shop, and the Saturday night party people, to give up a leisurely smoke in this stressful world of ours.

The Health Promotion Department’s strategy is to stigmatise smokers, much in the same way as drug users are labelled as outcasts, losers, criminals.

Fuelled by more awareness on the dangers of passive smoking (it is known to have caused a lot of untimely deaths and much sickness) and a paradoxical increase in the incidence of young smokers, the regulations were passed quietly last November and it is only now that they are being publicised by the authorities.

It is one of the political and moral victories of the health industry over the cigarette lobby – a battle long won in the US, Australia and a great part of Europe – preceded by a list of milestones against the narcotic, alcohol and sex industries albeit accompanied by contradictory policies to accommodate big business.

And businesses are not too happy about this one, particularly the tourism and leisure sectors. The Malta Hotel and Restaurants Association is awaiting its members’ feedback to take an official

position but has already called on the government to introduce the regulations gradually.

“Ultimately we are talking about changing a whole culture and if it is not done properly the whole thing will backfire,” said MHRA President Winston J. Zahra.

The president of the GRTU’s leisure and hospitality section, Philip Fenech, was even more critical: “Smoking is not a criminal activity and should not be portrayed as such, by having much the same penalties as real criminal activity,” he said.

“Smoking is an ingrained habit which has become part of our culture; people’s habits cannot be changed overnight. If a man is having a drink in a bar and lights up a cigarette, it would be idiotic to send a policeman to fine him. I understand the reasoning behind these regulations but we have to arrive there gradually, particularly in the entertainment sector.”

Mr Fenech said his association was “the voice of moderation”, urging the government to consult businesses and re-write the regulations.

But Health Minister Louis Deguara is determined to ban smoking in all public places as from 5 April. Known as a heavy smoker, he is said to have quitted recently, and ex-smokers make the most intolerant non-smokers of them all.

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