By Ruzanna Khachatrian
First-ever restrictions on smoking in public places in Armenia were significantly heightened on Wednesday in accordance with a law that came into force one year ago but has been widely ignored by tobacco addicts.
Officials admitted that compliance with the new rules requiring all public and private institutions, including bars and restaurants, to allow smoking only in special secluded areas will hardly be better, at least in the short run.
The law, effective from March 2005, banned smoking in hospitals, cultural and educational institutions and public transportation means. It was touted as the first phase of a government drive to curb tobacco use in the country. The additional restrictions effective from March 1, 2006 marked the start of the campaign’s second phase.
The measures designed to protect public health have so far been largely ineffectual because of the absence of any legal sanctions against those who violate them. Many restaurant and café owners are not even aware of the new requirements.
“To say that we have achieved a lot of success would be wrong,” said Hranush Hakobian, a senior parliamentarian and the main author of the anti-smoking law. “But at least this law has had a lot of public resonance.”
“The ice has been broken. We must now think about the next step. Legal entities violating the law must face sanctions,” Hakobian told RFE/RL, pledging to introduce legal amendments envisaging hefty fines to the National Assembly.
The new restrictions were clearly being enforced inside the parliament building on Wednesday, with special smoking areas set aside in the corners of its main lobby and canteen. Hakob Hakobian, one of the few non-smoking members of the assembly, welcomed the change. “It’s very bad when a smoker smokes near a non-smoker,” he said.
But opposition deputy Vazgen Manukian was far from being happy. “I was categorically against that law,” he complained, puffing a cigarette. He said anti-smoking campaigns can only work in Western democracies.
Armenia is believed to have one of the highest rates of smoking among men in Europe. The number of local female smokers still considerably smaller but has grown rapidly over the past decade.