Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic

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With 9,000 people dying each year in the country due to smoking-related health complications, the issue has to become top priority. (AFP)
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Smoking a traditional water pipe is popular in Jordan’s cafes, above and below, and also on the beach in the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea. (AFP)
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Jordanians swell their time away at a smoking joint. (Supplied)
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Updated 06 July 2020

Coronavirus crisis forces Jordan to confront a tobacco epidemic

  • On July 1, the kingdom extended a ban on all forms of smoking in closed public spaces citing the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Cheap cigarettes, ineffective laws and tobacco lobbies have helped Jordan grab global top spot for smoking rates

AMMAN: Zeina, a 32-year-old Jordanian national, is very particular about protecting herself in the COVID-19 era. She washes her hands regularly, wears a face mask and observes social distancing.

But as she sat with her friends in an upscale shisha cafe in Amman’s Abdoun neighborhood on a recent evening, she was unaware of the fact that she was inhaling 6,000 chemicals every time she drew flavored tobacco smoke through water.

“I tried to kick the habit many times, but meeting friends at cafes forced me to return to it,” Zeina told Arab News. That aspect of her social life has just come to a stop.

On July 1, Jordan extended a ban on all forms of smoking in closed public spaces, citing the fight against the pandemic.

“In order to protect the health and safety of citizens, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, smoking of all forms (cigarettes, e-cigarettes and shisha) is banned in all closed public spaces,” the Health Ministry said.

 

 

On June 23, London-based newspaper The Guardian published results of a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Jordan’s Health Ministry that said the kingdom had surpassed Indonesia to have the highest smoking rates in the world.

The study showed that more than eight out of 10 Jordanian men smoke or regularly use nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, and that 66 percent of Jordanian men and more than 17 percent of Jordanian women are smokers.

The Department of General Statistics revealed that by the end of the first quarter of 2020, the total spend on smoking reached 1.6 billion Jordanian dinars ($2.26 billion) — about 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — with every Jordanian spending on average 115 dinars on cigarettes per year.

Mohammad Shreem, director of Jordan’s Anti-Smoker’s Society, said when it researched the cost ratio of smoking, it concluded that for every dinar earned as revenue from cigarette sales tax, Jordan spends 12 times as much on treating smoking-related diseases.

The country annually loses 4 billion dinars in medical expenses, and 95 percent of people with lung cancer are smokers, he said, adding: “Their absence also hurts the economy because it lowers productivity.”

On the social level, it is easy to see how popular smoking is in the country. Ads target the Jordanian public across all platforms, including social media.




Jordanians swell their time away at a smoking joint. (Supplied)

One of them reads: “Smoke the argileh (water pipe) while driving or have it ordered to your house. Comes ready with red hot coals. Only for $10.”

Jordan has had a ban on smoking cigarettes in public places since 2008, but it was not forcefully implemented.

Before the latest ban that now covers e-cigarettes and shisha, many Jordanians were unaware that smoking in public places is a criminal offense that comes with a fine of 100 dinars and up to a month’s imprisonment.

Ayman, a resident of Amman’s Al-Weibdeh neighborhood, has been smoking for three years because everyone around him is a smoker.

Is he aware of the 2008 law? “I’ve never heard of it and no one is implementing it,” he told Arab News.

There was a reason for the lack of implementation over the years, said economic expert Mazen Marji.

“The Jordanian government has a stake in the widespread habit of smoking because it profits even more from it than do cigarette companies. It collects 75 percent taxes on cigarettes, which amounts to 1 billion dinars,” he told Arab News.

Many Jordanians put aside money to buy cigarettes, often at the expense of their food budget, and while these may be personal compulsions, “the government takes the responsibility for not implementing the law on smoking in public places,” he said.

Muwafiq Malkawi, a columnist for the daily Al-Ghad newspaper, concurs with Marji on the government’s responsibility.

“We criticize citizens on their lack of awareness (of the dangers of smoking) but let us first look at the faulty government policies on tobacco,” Malkawi wrote in one of his columns.

“This has become a powerful industry, especially because it brings to the government coffers JD 1 billion ($1.4 billion) a year. Cigarette companies are a powerful lobby around the world, and they impact governmental decision-making.”

Cigarettes lobbies, however, are not the only forces at work in Jordan to prevent smoking from losing popularity.

IN NUMBERS

  • 6%  Share of Jordan’s GDP spent on smoking in 2019.
  • 9,000 Annual deaths blamed on smoking-related complications.
  • $2.26 billion Total spend on smoking in 2019.

In 2014, the Health Ministry made valiant attempts to enforce the public health law and stop the use of shisha in cafes, but the pushback from cafe owners and investors proved to be too strong.

Eventually a compromise was reached, with a health warning stuck on premises that goes largely unnoticed by the public.

When Arab News spoke to a cross-section of Jordanians on why anti-smoking campaigns fail, they attributed it predominantly to the absence of rigorous implementation of the law, with community pressure and the low price of cigarettes following close behind.

“In Jordan, prices are low and so everyone can buy cigarettes without making a dent in their budget. This is a huge factor that encourages smoking,” said Malkawi.

Marji pointed to the possibility of an increase in smuggling if the cost of cigarettes goes up. “The government will have to fight that as well,” he said.

Shreem pointed to the high mortality rate from smoking-related diseases. “Eight million people die every year worldwide from diseases related to smoking. This is a much higher figure than the rate of fatalities due to the coronavirus until now, yet smoking is still to be listed as a pandemic in the Arab world,” he said.




Smoking a traditional water pipe is popular in Jordan’s cafes, above and below, and also on the beach in the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea. (AFP)

Princess Dina Mired, a Jordanian humanitarian and health activist, has spoken on this issue, pointing to smoking’s high cost to public health.

Thanks to lax implementation of the law on smoking, six global companies are spending a lot of money to entice the young to smoke, she said. She welcomed the July 1 ban, and expressed hope that it will be properly implemented.

Firas Al-Hawari, head of the lung unit and the intensive care unit at the King Hussein Cancer Center, told Arab News: “We’re at war with smoking, which is reaching children and adolescents. The problem is getting worse due to e-cigarettes.”

Referring to Jordan’s non-implementation of the WHO’s 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which asserts the importance of demand-reduction strategies as well as supply issues, Al-Hawari did not mince words.

“The smoking averages in Jordan are a warning that we are approaching a pandemic of non-communicable diseases," he said.

“With 9,000 people dying every year in the country due to smoking-related health complications, the issue has to become top priority.”

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@daoudkuttab

Field research by Mohammad Ersan; video filming by Mohammad Abu Hijah and Mohammad Shannak


Seth Rogen’s Israel comments highlight fraught diaspora ties

Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a fire after an Israeli airstrike, on a floor in a building that also houses international media offices in Gaza City. (Reuters/File)
Updated 08 August 2020

Seth Rogen’s Israel comments highlight fraught diaspora ties

  • Jewish comedians’ conversation on Israel spark an uproar

TEL AVIV: It began as a lighthearted conversation between two Jewish comedians, riffing on a podcast about the idiosyncrasies of their shared heritage. But after talk turned to Israel, it didn’t take long for Marc Maron and Seth Rogen to spark an uproar.

Their comments about Israel — especially Rogen saying the country “doesn’t make sense” — infuriated many Israel supporters and highlighted the country’s tenuous relationship with young, progressive Jewish critics in the diaspora.
Israel has long benefited from financial and political support from American Jews. But in recent years the country has faced a groundswell of opposition from young progressives, disillusioned by Israel’s aggressive West Bank settlement building, its perceived exclusion of liberal streams of Judaism and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cosy relationship with President Donald Trump.
“What Seth Rogen said is par for the course among our generation and the Israeli government has to wake up and see that their actions have consequences,” said Yonah Lieberman, spokesman for If Not Now, an American Jewish organization opposed to Israel’s entrenched occupation of the West Bank.
Rogen’s remarks follow a dramatic shift by an influential Jewish American commentator who recently endorsed the idea of a democratic entity of Jews and Palestinians living with equal rights on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Peter Beinart’s argument that a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine — is no longer possible sent shock waves through the Jewish establishment and Washington policymaking circles.
For many Jews, Israel is an integral part of their identity, on religious grounds or as an insurance policy in the wake of the Holocaust and in a modern age of resurgent anti-Semitism. But polls have shown that while most American Jews identify with Israel and feel a connection to the country, that support has waned over recent years, especially among millennials.
Some have even embraced the Palestinian-led movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel to protest what it says is Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Israel accuses the movement of waging a campaign to delegitimize its very existence.

SPEEDREAD

Their comments about Israel — especially Rogen saying the country ‘doesn’t make sense’ — highlighted the country’s tenuous relationship with young, progressive Jewish critics in the diaspora.

In the podcast, Rogen, who appeared in such smash comedies as “Superbad” and “Knocked Up,” talked about attending Jewish schools and Jewish summer camp while growing up in Vancouver. He said his parents met on an Israeli kibbutz.
As they continued to chat, Rogen appeared to question why Israel was established.
“You don’t keep all your Jews in one basket. I don’t understand why they did that. It makes no sense whatsoever,” Rogen said. “You don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place especially when that place has proven to be pretty volatile. I’m trying to keep all these things safe. I’m going to put them in my blender and hope that that’s the best place to, that’ll do it.”
Rogen then said he was “fed a huge amount of lies” about Israel during his youth. “They never tell you that ‘oh, by the way, there were people there.’ They make it seem like, ‘the (expletive) door’s open.’”
Maron and Rogen both joked about how frightened they were about the responses they would receive from Israel’s defenders. Their concerns were justified.
Rogen’s comments immediately lit up “Jewish Twitter.” They unleashed a flurry of critical op-eds in Jewish and Israeli media. And they prompted Rogen to call Isaac Herzog, the head of the Jewish Agency, a major nonprofit that works to foster relations between Israel and the Jewish world.
In a Facebook post, Herzog said he and Rogen had a frank and open conversation. He said Rogen “was misunderstood and apologized” for his comments.
“I told him that many Israelis and Jews around the world were personally hurt by his statement, which implies the denial of Israel’s right to exist,” Herzog wrote.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Rogen said he called Herzog at the urging of his mother and he denied apologizing. He said the comments were made in jest and misconstrued.
“I don’t want Jews to think that I don’t think Israel should exist. And I understand how they could have been led to think that,” he said.
Rogen also said he is a “proud Jew.” He said his criticism was aimed at the education he received, and he believed he could have been given a deeper picture of a “complex” situation.
Ironically, Rogen was on the podcast to promote his new movie, “An American Pickle,” about a Jewish immigrant to the US at the start of the 20th century who falls into a vat of pickle brine and emerges 100 years later. He called the project a “very Jewish film.”
Lieberman, from If Not Now, said the uproar shows “how much the conversation has changed” about Israel among American Jews.
Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said Israel should not be expected to change its “security and foreign policies” based on growing estrangement from Jews overseas.
But he said it can take realistic steps to close the gap, such as establishing a pluralistic prayer site at the Western Wall, long a sticking point between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and more liberal Jews in the US
“It’s a challenge for Israel. It’s inconvenient. We want everyone to love us, especially other Jews,” he said. “Israel can do certain things to make it somewhat better.”