By Nane Atshemian
Armenia’s first-ever anti-tobacco drive officially kicked off on Wednesday with the introdcution of a complete ban on smoking in hospitals, cultural and educational institutions and public transportation facilities.
Officials said the measures mark “the first phase” in the implementation of a relevant law that was passed by parliament late last year and is aimed at gradually banning cigarettes from all public places. Sales of cigarettes to individuals below the age of 18 will also be illegal from now on.
“The next phase will take effect a year later,” said Alik Bazarchian, the anti-smoking program coordinator of the Armenian Ministry of Health. “It will restrict smoking in public places, business enterprises and other indoor areas.”
The law was enacted after being twice rejected by the National Assembly, the vast majority of whose members are smokers. Some of them are, in addition, wealthy businessmen involved in cigarette imports.
The legislation attracted unlikely support from Hrant Vartanian, the owner of Armenia’s two tobacco factories that meet at least half of the domestic cigarette demand. “A cigarette smoker is sick for life,” he declared last November.
Armenia also signed up to an anti-smoking framework convention of the World Health Organization that come into force earlier this week. As part of that convention the Armenian government committed itself to ensuring that health warnings cover at least 30 percent of the area of cigarette packets by 2008 and banning all forms of tobacco advertising by 2010.
However, there is widespread skepticism about the actual enforcement of the restrictions stemming from the law. Bazarchian admitted that it will be problematic as the government has yet to set fines and other penalties for those who will flout them. “We will work out enforcement mechanisms in the coming months,” he said.
Paronak Zelveyan of the Armenian Health Association, a non-governmental organization, believes that even that will not guarantee compliance, pointing to widespread disregard for traffic rules by Armenian motorists and pedestrians alike. “The law will not work until there are sanctions,” he said. “But we already have laws and government regulations that entail specific sanctions which are not enforced in practice.”
Zelveyan added that the Armenian media can play a “very serious role” in monitoring and addressing the problem.
Armenia has one of the highest rates of smoking in Europe. According to the Ministry of Health, more than 60 percent of Armenian men are smokers. That proportion is much lower among women, but it is believed to be growing rapidly.