IRAQ: Should Anti-Smoking Laws be a Priority?
IRAQ: Should Anti-Smoking Laws be a Priority?

Sara Burhan Abdullah, Pitt Law LL.M. '08 and JD '12, writes about an experience in her home country of Iraq…

This summer, I returned to Iraq to intern with the Global Justice Project: Iraq, which is run by the University of Utah. The purpose of the project is to provide the Iraqi Council of Representatives (the legislative branch in Iraq) with legal advice and other legal assistance. While working in the northern Kurdish region, I saw many signs stating "NO SMOKING" in three languages (Kurdish, Arabic, and English). However, I was disappointed by the fact that no one paid any attention to any of the signs.

Later, I found out that a 2007 law [text, PDF] passed by the Kurdish regional parliament prohibits smoking in public places such as restaurants, airports, hospitals, governmental offices, and schools and universities. Under this anti-smoking law a simple violation is punishable by a fine of about $10. At first, I thought that the government would enforce the new law and punish violators accordingly. However, when I went to the regional bar association to renew my bar membership, I saw the "No Smoking" sign again and said to myself that people with legal backgrounds will respect the law and the law will probably be enforced here at the bar association. Surprisingly, however, the employee who took care of my paperwork smoked as he reviewed the necessary documents. I could not keep quiet at this clear affront to the law and asked him, "Have you seen the sign above your head on the wall?" The employee very respectfully answered me and said that this rule applies to visitors and clients, not to employees. Although he said this jokingly, he also meant what he said given his conduct.

A few days later, I was reading the daily newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat in my office in Baghdad's Green Zone. I noticed an article about efforts by the Iraqi parliament to enact a law — just like the one in Kurdistan — that would ban smoking in public areas and punish those who violate the law. The article included interviews with local people giving their opinions about the proposed law and its effect on them. Some of the interviewees laughed at the proposal, commenting that there are so many other things to fix and pay attention to in order to keep Iraqis healthy. One interviewee said that Iraqis need access to better health care, and medical equipment and necessities, not a ban on smoking, which no one will pay any attention to anyways.

At first, I was disappointed at how the law was being ignored, but reading the paper and seeing the conditions in Baghdad made me think again. One can see why it might be a good step for the Iraqi government to pass an anti-smoking law and think about the safety of the public, specifically those who do not smoke. Yet as the interviewees made clear, there are other more pressing concerns. Iraqis lack many basic necessities that the government should address — most importantly electricity, water and good health care. Moreover, the government can do much more to clean the streets of Baghdad and the Tigris River, which runs through the middle of the city. In a short walk alongside the Tigris, I was disappointed to see part of the river covered with empty bottles. An anti-littering campaign would do much to improve Iraqis' quality of life.

Perhaps Iraqis are more in need of effective systems of governance addressing their basic needs than they are of an anti-smoking law that will be totally ignored, upsetting the public even more. The Iraqi people, given the challenges of mere survival that they face every day, have not arrived at the stage where caring for someone else's right regarding smoke exposure can be important to them. The Iraqi government might want to think about the Iraqi community in a more realistic way, rather than pretend that the community lives in such good conditions that a law banning smoking in public areas is the most pressing concern.

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