Death and taxes: Govt makes smoking less convenient, more expensive

Ahmed Yassin actively looks forward to a drop in his business. The owner of a kiosk on Mourad Street in Giza, Yassin makes a decent living selling potato chips, soft drinks, mobile-phone cards, and lots and lots of cigarettes.

Now, thanks to a new tobacco tax, “People have already cut down on smoking,” Yassin said. “The customer who smoked two packs a day now buys just one pack and makes it last longer.”

The Marlboro supply truck typically stops by three times a week, but these days, Yassin says he only needs to replenish his stock about once a week. Yet despite the blow to his income, Yassin, a devout non-smoker, applauds the change. “It’s a good thing,” he said. “My income will be there either way. If they don’t buy cigarettes, they’ll buy chips and soda.”

The new taxes took effect on 1 July–a 40-percent increase on cigarettes and a 100-percent increase on shisha tobacco. It’s all part of what seems to be a serious anti-smoking push by the Health Ministry, with the active support of international anti-tobacco organizations.

“Smoking is well-established in Egypt,” said Mohamed el-Ghamrawy, local representative for the World Lung Foundation, which considers Egypt a “high-priority country” and ranks it among the top-ten tobacco consumers in the world.

Chipping away at Egypt’s longstanding passion for tobacco will be one of the government’s priorities, says Dr. Ehab Attia, head of the ministry’s environmental health department. It won’t be an easy job in a country where doctors, pharmacists–and even some senior Health Ministry of officials–commonly smoke on the job. The ministry estimates that 20 percent of Egyptians smoke, consuming a total of about 80 billion cigarettes per year.

“The government wants people to see smoking as undesirable and unacceptable,” said Attia, a non-smoker. “The stage we want to reach is where the people themselves ban smoking and refuse to be around it.”

In addition to the new taxes, the ministry is also launching a pilot program designed to curb indoor smoking. On 10 June, it became illegal to smoke in closed public spaces throughout second city Alexandria. Once a three-month grace period ends on 10 September, violators will be subject to an LE50 fine.

The indoor smoking ban will eventually be applied in other urban areas. Attia said he hoped to have it in place in every Egyptian city within four years.

Of course, laws are only useful if they’re actually enforced, a fact that has frustrated previous attempts at anti-smoking legislation. Anyone who has ever visited a government office in Egypt would be shocked to know that smoking in government buildings has technically been illegal since 2007.

But Health Ministry officials seem confident that the Alexandria smoking ban won’t suffer the same fate. Attia says the Alexandria Governorate and Ministry of Justice are fully on board. He’s also counting on the unique personality of Alexandrians to help the process. The city was chosen for the experiment because of its manageable size and because, “Alexandrians have a lot of unique pride in their city and want to always see themselves as advanced,” said Attia.

For Cairenes, meanwhile, the most immediate effect of the anti-smoking campaign is higher cigarette prices. But some of those affected by the new taxes seem unexpectedly happy about the change.

“God willing, this will help me quit,” said Sami Amar, a 32-year-old fire-alarm technician waving a pack of L&Ms, which went up from LE4.75 to LE6.50. “My family is more important than this.”

Amar pointed out that new pricing has already affected one of the fundamental aspects of Egyptian social interaction.
“It used to be, at work or with friends, you would pull out your pack and pass cigarettes around,” he said. “But now, all 20 cigarettes in the pack are for me.”

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