The government announced on Thursday plans to at least restrict smoking in public places and raise cigarette prices as part of a new strategy of curbing tobacco use in Armenia.
“Smoke less,” Prime Minister Karen Karapetian declared as his cabinet approved the program aimed at reducing the large number of smokers in the country by at least 1.5 percent annually for the next three years.
According to the Ministry of Health estimates, more than a quarter of adult Armenians smoke on a daily basis. The smoking rate is especially high among men: 55 percent.
Health Minister Levon Altunian told reporters that the anti-tobacco strategy outlines wide-ranging measures meant to cut these numbers. He said the authorities will “toughen” rules for smoking in offices, restaurants, cafes and bars, raise taxes levied from cigarettes, and ban all forms of tobacco advertising.
Altunian would not say whether this will lead to a blanket ban on smoking in public areas. He said the government will clarify that in a package of bills to that will be sent to the Armenian parliament this fall.
The Ministry of Health recommended such a ban when it announced the impending launch of the anti-tobacco drive in late May. The ministry also called for heavy fines for those businesses that would fail to enforce it.
“I haven’t changed my position,” Altunian said on Thursday.
The minister also insisted that Armenian companies manufacturing and importing cigarettes have not lobbied the government to water down the planned measures. “We haven’t asked for their opinion either,” he added.
Arsen Torosian, a doctor and anti-smoking campaigner, cautiously welcomed the government plans. “I hope that at least part of what has been declared will be implemented: cigarette prices will be raised, smoking will be completely banned in public places, and tobacco advertising will be banned in full,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “This cannot fail to cut the number of smokers because these methods have been successfully used all over the world.”
“The key thing here is political will,” Torosian stressed, pointing to the failure of a five-year anti-tobacco program adopted by the authorities in 2010.
That program was supposed to reduce tobacco consumption blamed by medics for a high incidence of lung cancer in Armenia. Government data shows that the proportion of heavy smokers in the population actually rose form 23 percent in 2012 to 26 percent in 2016.
An Armenian law that came into force in 2005 banned smoking in hospitals, cultural and educational institutions and public buses. Additional restrictions introduced a year later required other entities, including bars and restaurants, to allow smoking only in special secluded areas. But with no legal sanctions put in place against their violation, those measures proved largely ineffectual.