Shrugging Off Smoking Ban

An activist counts as a guard at a commercial complex in Mumbai does sit-ups as punishment for letting a person smoke inside.
An activist counts as a guard at a commercial complex in Mumbai does sit-ups as punishment for letting a person smoke inside. (By Rajanish Kakade -- Associated Press)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 21, 2008


After sashaying through the silver-and-black love beads at the entrance of a newly opened hotel bar, a group of friends piled into a booth and were surprised to find cigarettes on the menu, filling an entire page in between the mocktails and the cocktails.

Two weeks ago, India's government announced the world's biggest smoking ban, hoping to discourage a habit that leads to the deaths of an estimated 900,000 Indians annually. But despite several highly publicized stings in the capital, with officials doling out about 60 fines, shopkeepers, health experts and smokers say the government faces a colossal battle in implementing the diktat across this vast country of 1.1 billion people.

"People drink and they want to smoke, so why not have cigarettes on the menu?" shrugged Tikka Singh, 24, a waiter in a silver-and-black vest who proudly pointed to a sign: "Good news for Smokers: We have a separate smoking room!"

The ban applies to public parks, movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs and offices. Although hotel bars of a certain size are permitted to designate smoking rooms, smokers at this bar trickled onto the dance floor and up to the bar, all the while ordering cigarettes off the menu and lighting up.

In the world's largest democracy, where protesting just about anything is a national sport, previous efforts to ban anti-social behaviors have roundly failed. One problem is the sheer size of the population and a shortage of police or health officers to enforce laws. In addition, low-paid police officers and other officials simply take a bribe instead of writing out piles of paperwork in triplicate.

Last year, an attempt to ban public urination proved so fruitless that a popular newspaper started a shame campaign, publishing photos of violators in the middle of the act. It sold papers. But the men relieving themselves curbside seemed unbothered.

An attempt to ban unhygienic street food in New Delhi received a lot of news media attention. But the ban was never enforced and disappeared as quickly as a tray of fly-ridden samosas.

Scooters and motorcycles constitute a majority of the vehicles on Indian roads, and a helmet law is technically in place. But many women refuse to wear them, arguing that it messes up their hair. The law is also not enforceable for Sikhs, who wear turbans.

Last week, New Delhi's government announced that it would start enforcing parking rules in a city where cars are often left on sidewalks or atop grassy knolls. But police protested, saying that only a handful of metal boots were available, and that they were too heavy to haul around in the hot weather.

Many Indians said they doubt the smoking ban will fare much better than similar such measures preceding it. "The anti-smoking law is actually already dead. Forget about the long run, it won't even be effective in the short run. Everyone is smoking everywhere," said Sai Ram, 58, a businessman. Referring to the recent increase in bombings across the country, Ram added: "The police are not able to stop the terrorists, so will they really be able to control smokers?"

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