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Armenia: Smoking Restrictions Widened, But Is Anyone Taking Notice?

Countries of the Caucasus have some of the highest smoking rates in Europe (epa) It's harder to smoke in Armenia these days, as the second phase of a smoking ban came into effect this week. The law now requires all public and private institutions -- including bars and restaurants -- to allow smoking only in allocated areas. But that doesn't seem to be stopping many Armenians lighting up where they shouldn't. In such a heavy-smoking country, is there anything the authorities can do to enforce the measures?

PRAGUE, March 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- At least inside Armenia's parliament building in Yerevan, the new restrictions appear to be working.

Special smoking areas have been set aside in the corners of the main lobby and canteen. Hakob Hakobian, one of the few non-smoking members of the assembly, welcomed the change. "It's very bad when a smoker smokes near a non-smoker," he says.

But opposition deputy Vazgen Manukian, puffing away on a cigarette, is not impressed

"I was categorically against that law. Everything was perfect in Armenia and the state had to ban smoking. The countries that have banned smoking have better social conditions for their people, there are more freedoms," Manukian says. "These countries were already democratic countries and they started thinking about their health. There couldn't be a more stupid decision in this disastrous country, where people are still dying from hunger, than to ban smoking."

Law In Force Last Year

The law officially came into force in March 2005. Its first phase banned smoking in hospitals, cultural and educational institutions, and on public transport. It was touted as a government drive to curb tobacco use in the country.

The additional restrictions, effective from March 1, 2006 (Wednesday), mark the start of the campaign's second phase and require all public and private institutions -- including bars and restaurants -- to allow smoking only in special secluded areas.

Despite the ban, it seems that Armenians are smoking as much as ever. And that's a lot. According to World Health Organization statistics, 63.7 percent of Armenian men are smokers -- the highest rate in Europe. Armenian women smoke far less, with some estimates putting the number at around 3 percent of the female population.

Lack Of Punitive Measures

Even many officials admit that -- for now at least -- the ban will be hard to enforce.

Hranush Hakobian, a senior parliamentarian and the main author of the anti-smoking law, is candid about this: "To say that we have achieved a lot of success would be wrong. But at least this law has had a lot of public resonance."

Observers say that the measures have so far been largely ineffectual because of the absence of any legal sanctions against those who violate them. Many restaurant and cafe owners are not even aware of the new requirements.

But Hakobian thinks the restrictions are a good start. "We must now think about the next step. Legal entities violating the law must face sanctions," she says.

The deputy pledged to push for amendments to the law that would introduce hefty fines for unremitting smokers.

Smoking bans -- some small-scale and voluntary, others government-sponsored -- have spread throughout the world in recent years, largely due to increased awareness about the dangers of passive smoking. Many smokers, however, argue that the bans are a violation of their rights.

(RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondent Ruzanna Khachatrian contributed to this report)

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