Health Minister determined to implement smoke ban - 1/10/2004

The October 5 target set for the introduction of smoking regulations in large entertainment establishments will in no way be postponed, Health Minister Louis Deguara pledged yesterday.

The Health Ministry, Dr Deguara insisted, was determined not to allow any last-minute attempt to delay the rules.

The controversial smoking regulations, which created a rift between the Health Ministry and the Chamber for Small and Medium Enterprises (GRTU), will come into force in entertainment establishments measuring over 60 square metres in a week's time while those establishments measuring under 60 square metres have until next April to comply.

In an interview with The Times, Dr Deguara said the smoking regulations are being introduced to safeguard the health of both non-smokers and those who smoke. One person dies of a tobacco-related illness every day, he recalled. "It is the government's and the Health Minister's duty to do their best to safeguard people's health," he stressed.

The minister said the local health situation could be drastically improved if one of the risk factors - tobacco - was eliminated. He explained that four of the diseases highly prevalent among Maltese people - heart conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma - were directly and severely influenced by tobacco use.

"When a person stops smoking, he is eliminating the biggest avoidable risk that affects a number of diseases which, unfortunately, are all prevalent in Malta," Dr Deguara said.

The high prevalence of diseases aggravated by tobacco inhalation was a trigger for the government to introduce regulations which will lead to Malta being one of the first countries implementing such measures, the minister said, adding that statistics indicate that 30 per cent of the Maltese population smokes, including many who do so heavily.

Also worrying the local authorities is the increasing number of female smokers, a development which, in a couple of decades, is expected to lead to lung cancer overtaking breast cancer in becoming the most common cancer among the female population.

Dr Deguara said that despite decades-long education the number of smokers made one doubt whether such initiatives, on their own, were effective.

Malta is not the only country taking measures to safeguard people's health. Earlier this year Ireland imposed a total stop to smoking in entertainment establishments despite the high pub culture existent in the country. The Liverpool city council was promoting a private Bill in Parliament which would outlaw smoking in all enclosed workplaces. Dr Deguara said there was no doubt that in a few years' time other countries would adopt similar laws.

While the Irish government had opted to make it illegal for anyone to smoke in entertainment establishments, Malta did not go so far. In fact, regulations issued by the Malta Standards Authority lay down that patrons will be able to smoke in designated smoking rooms, which have to comply with a number of regulations.

Although the regulations do not specify how large smoking rooms should be, or what percentage of an establishment can be turned into a smoking room, the minister said the bigger the room, the more difficult it would be to keep it up to the established standards. Apart from safeguarding the health of the smokers themselves, the regulations also seek to protect the interests of employees who need to get into the room.

The GRTU is saying it would be difficult for small establishments to divide their property to make way for a smoking room which complies with the regulations. The minister's suggestion is for patrons to simply go outdoors to smoke, especially once the weather usually allows it. Bad weather conditions have not stopped smokers from going outdoors to smoke in other countries, even when it was snowing, he said.

Dr Deguara thinks it will be possible to enforce the regulations. The authorities will be banking on non-smokers to make sure the rules are respected and bringing the issue to the attention of those in charge if illegal smoking takes place. This was the same attitude taken by the Irish government when the regulations were introduced across the country. In fact, Dr Deguara said, there were only 67 enforcement officers for the whole of Ireland, an extremely small number considering there are over 2,800 pubs in Dublin alone.

Owners of entertainment establishments will be responsible to take all the necessary measures to ensure that the law is not broken. Routine inspections will be carried out, the minister warned.

In enforcing the regulations, the authorities would be going beyond safeguarding a smoker's health. Cigarette smoke, the minister said, produces 10 times more air pollution than diesel car exhaust. Even Philip Morris International admitted recently that "smoking is addictive and causes serious and fatal diseases", Dr Deguara said.

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