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Turkey Ending its Love Affair With Tobacco

The expression "smoke like a Turk" seems destined for the rubbish bin of history now that Turkey has introduced some of the toughest anti-smoking legislation in all of Europe. The new ban aims to curb Turkey's love affair with tobacco, which is blamed for 100,000 smoking deaths in the country each year.

100,000 tobacco-related deaths a year

A Turkish health commercial warns of the dangers of smoking, It says every year over 100,000 people die from smoking.

The commercial is part of the government's new campaign against smoking. This week the government introduced some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in Europe. Smoking is now banned in all closed public places, and that includes traditional tea and coffee houses.

For centuries Turks have passed the time sipping their tea and coffee with a cigarette. These smoke-filled rooms are iconic images of Turkey. But no more.

At the Keyif Coffee House the new ban has already hit hard, according to its owner.

An end to ancient tradition?

"Sure this ban will affect us both work wise and lifestyle. We will not be able to live the way we did. As for our cafe, we will have to find new ways to take some economical measures like sacking workers," he said. "Considering the material and emotional loss of all the people we sacked, the cigarette ban does not create a good picture for us, and three months ago I paid for a new license to sell tobacco."

The new law is being seen as the beginning of the end for one of the country's most ancient traditions. At Keyif cafe, people used to smoking tobacco using a water pipe or as it is called in Turkey, a nargileh. It is a tradition that goes back centuries. But the nargileh too has fallen victim to the ban.

There are few customers left in Keyif cafe. One of them is Zeynel Dogan who is engaged in another ancient tradition, that of backgammon. For him smoking is part of the way of life of a Turk.

"We come here, when we have some time off work, playing backgammon, having a cup of tea and having a nargileh, which is good for us, it is a relaxing time for us," he said. "People like coming here and having a smoke, having a chilling out. But they should decide themselves, the government should give them their space."

Not first ban in Turkey

But its not the first time smokers have faced such regulation. In the 17th century, Sultan Murad IV banned smoking on the pain of death. While smokers no longer fear execution, they do face an on the spot fine of more than $50 if they are caught lighting up, while for shop owners the fine can be more than $3,000. Avid anti-smoker, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is demanding the rigorous enforcement of the ban, and thousands of people have been employed to enforce it.

Most support ban

According to a recent opinion poll 90 percent of those polled supported the ban. In Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul there appears widespread support for Prime Minister Erdogan's stance, and little sympathy for cigarette or nargileh smokers. This woman's view is typical.

"Nargileh, it might be part of the tradition it has become hyped in the past five or six years, like there was no nargileh culture before it is created," she said. "It has attracted many many people to smoke even more. So I am perfectly happy that nargileh places will go off."

But back in Keyif cafe there is defiance, at least from some customers. Although no one was lighting up, some, like this customer, believe its only a matter of time before the ban becomes unworkable.

"European countries always respect their own rules. But in Turkey we are between the European culture and the East," said a customer. "So some rules of European countries do not work in Turkey I think."

For now, at least, all the cafes visited to research this story were displaying large signs warning of the ban, there was not a smoker to be seen. But with 30 million people believed to be tobacco users, both sides admit its going to be a long battle to end the country's love affair with smoking.