How to be European: ban smoking in public

After ‘smoking like a Turk’ in Istanbul, Nathalie Rothschild laments the city's plan to enforce an EU-style clampdown on the evil weed.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

When I left Istanbul, three days into the new year and after a two-week holiday of sightseeing, partying and, as the Italians put it, ‘smoking like a Turk’, snow and strong winds had the congested city in gridlock and the flight schedule in shambles. There wasn’t much to do except enjoy a final cup of dark Turkish tea and a duty-free cigarette in the overpriced airport café. This simple pleasure took on added significance on the day of my departure; this was also the day that the Turkish parliament voted in favour of introducing a ban on smoking in public places.

The announcement came soon after similar initiatives were enforced in France and Germany. Most European Union (EU) members have by now outlawed the ‘evil weed’ from public places. It seems that Turkey, which hopes to join the EU soon, has sensed the zeitgeist prevailing in Europe, where politicians are trying to clear clouds of smoke in the name of healthy lifestyles for all. So it now demonstrates its ‘European credentials’ by instituting a similar petty ban underpinned by the desire to police our health and morality. Where Turkey is regularly reprimanded for its poor human rights record, its clampdown on personal freedom in the shape of a smoking ban is unlikely to raise any eyebrows amongst EU bureaucrats.

The ban in Turkey was championed by prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan, known not only for his keenness to enter the EU but also for his strong dislike of smoking. His Islamist-rooted AK Party has a large majority in parliament, which overwhelmingly endorsed the law against smoking in public places: there were 240 votes in favour and just two against.

Erdoğan’s puritan streak has been revealed in the past: he has attempted to criminalise adultery and to introduce ‘alcohol-free zones’. It is striking how well the Western, supposedly progressive, smoking ban sits alongside Erdoğan’s illiberal Islamist instincts. In the West, Islam is said by some to be irreconcilable with freedom – yet the currently Islamist-ruled Turkey and the Islamo-nervous EU are united when it comes to moralistic legislation that turns what are simply bad habits into criminal acts.

Ultimately, anti-smoking measures, whether they are justified in secular language about protecting workers’ health or in Islamic arguments that link the ban on smoking with restrictions on booze and extramarital affairs, are an attack on a culture of freedom. Fighting for a ‘right to smoke’ is a bizarre idea, and remains the pursuit of a handful of slightly cranky right-wingers; but the impact of the smoking ban on personal choice, and on the relaxed and open atmosphere of cafés and bars and everyday life, should not be underestimated. Draconian bans, imposed from above, impinge on the ability of communities and individuals to negotiate among themselves what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

‘Simit’ vendor in Istanbul enjoys a cigarette

Turkey is hardly the heartland of liberty, as shown by its continuing discrimination against minorities and suppression of freedom of expression through the law against ‘insulting Turkishness’. It is also mandatory in Turkey to carry ID cards. One late night, some friends and I crossed the ever-bustling Taksim Square, a central point in the European part of Istanbul surrounded by hotels, shops, bars and night clubs. We saw policemen beating up a group of seemingly harmless young men in full view of nighttime revellers before taking them away in police vans.

Despite these incidents, however, as a tourist I found it a relief to get some respite from the petty and minute ways in which our movements and habits are monitored here in Britain. How refreshing to be free of the endless security announcements at train stations, the ceaseless exhortations to live and eat healthily, and the gaze of CCTV cameras that have become omnipresent in the UK.

Yet now, the Western-style politics of behaviour, with its killjoy intrusions into the private habits of the government-defined Unkempt, have arrived in Turkey. Of course, some Turks would quite like to be free from the tobacco smoke that engulfs the country’s cafés and shops. One anti-smoking couple I met over cups of strong Turkish coffee reprimanded my friend and I when we lit up our second cigarettes of the evening; a Californian woman who has been living in Istanbul for seven years told me she hates the heavy smoking in the city’s bars. A veteran jazz musician friend of mine, upon hearing a television news broadcast announcing the probable introduction of a smoking ban, exclaimed ‘how nice!’

Many Turkish commentators have also endorsed the ban, though some acknowledge that it will be difficult to enforce it in practice. Ismet Berkan, writing in Haber, called the law a ‘revolution’, and said Turkish people will soon realise ‘that the smell of smoke is one of the ugliest smells that exists’. Berkan longs for the ‘revolution’ to begin and claims it is one of the most important accomplishments of the current government (1). Expressing a particularly snobbish reaction, Cengiz Semercioğlu, writing in the daily Hürriet, said: ‘The law can be implemented very quickly in the cafés of Nişantaşı and Etiler [two affluent areas of Istanbul], but I still don’t understand how will it be done in the local cafés or beer halls. But sooner or later they too will improve.’ (2)

Indeed, in Şişli, another upmarket Istanbul district, smoking has already been banned in some shopping centres and internet cafes. But, in general, restrictions against smoking in public areas have been poorly enforced. While I, by reflex, stubbed out my cigarette when entering shopping arcades, taxis and outdoor tram stations during the first days of my visit, I soon realised that the few non-smoking signs I saw around the city were rarely obeyed by Istanbullus.

Turks smoke in cafés, teahouses, restaurants, nightclubs, malls, shops and mosque courtyards. Taxi drivers display no-smoking signs in their cars, but still puff away while driving. In Istanbul, even Starbucks cafés, famed for operating a no-smoking policy before smoking bans were de rigueur in the US and Europe, have smoking areas.

No need for a cigarette break

I asked Turkish friends what they thought of the ban. ‘Considering the unwillingness of smokers, who constitute a majority of the country’s population, to obey this law, it is unlikely that the government will be able to make it work in practice’, said Zeynep, a 26-year-old student. Yet she can see that this is not just a practical issue – there is also the issue of personal liberty. ‘Why put so much effort into banning smoking in a country where there are much bigger problems to tackle? The government should put more efforts into improving the social rights of Turkish citizens. Most people, including myself, see this ban as a violation of our civil rights.’ Selen, a 24-year-old musician, told me she feels smoking infringes on people’s personal spaces. But she believes there are ‘no good intentions’ behind the government’s initiative. ‘Smoking should be a personal choice’, she said.

In European countries, anti-tobacco activists have claimed that smoking puts a strain on health services, and health campaigners in Turkey have claimed that smoking-related illnesses cost the country up to three billion lira (£1.4bn; $2.7bn) a year. It seems rather obtuse to blame smokers in this way when most Turks can’t even access decent healthcare to begin with. The failures in health provision are a far bigger threat to the quality of life of those who live in impoverished neighbourhoods in Istanbul than the occasional cigarette, as enjoyed over games of backgammon in local teahouses. As in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, the Turkish authorities seem keen to introduce a kneejerk ban to win some political points rather than to tackle pressing political and social problems.

Yes, the tobacco smoke does get uncomfortably heavy at times in Istanbul – both in people’s homes and in public places. Yet, at the risk of sounding nostalgic, the atmosphere in places like the famous Nardis jazz club, where during my last night in the city the audience’s smoke-rings formed a perfect accompaniment to the dim lighting and the musicians’ soulful tunes, will never be the same once the ban is enforced.

‘Being European’, certainly amongst progressives, once meant holding dear to ideals such as cosmopolitanism, enlightenment and liberty. Today, by contrast, slotting yourself into the bureaucratic and aloof EU means adopting policies that obsess over people’s personal health and private habits, and displaying an anti-democratic impulse to intrude into citizens’ lifestyle choices. Turkey is effectively jumping through hoops in its effort to become a fully paid-up member of the EU – and it has recognised that one of those hoops is a willingness to fill the void left by the demise of Big Politics with narrow-minded and illiberal excursions into the politics of everyday life.

Countless travellers, authors and artists have turned Turkey’s East-West divide into a tired cliché. How sad that the imagination of politicians in Turkey and in Europe is so poor that they think a smoking ban – rather than an appreciation of the aspirations and values that Westerners and Easterners share in common – can bridge this divide.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’. Nathalie Rothschild reported on a rare protest against the English smoking ban. Mick Hume reflected on what the ban says about today’s society, and argued that there are too many postures and poses in the debate about Turkey’s place in Europe. Or read more at spiked issues Smoking and Europe.

(1) Sigaranýn dumaný, Haber, 4 January 2008

(2) Türk gibi sigara içmek, Hürriyet, 5 January 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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