Istanbul’s smoking culture

The life of the Dutch smoker is not easy at all. While the government tries to do everything in their power to make it more difficult for smokers in the Netherlands, in Beşiktaş, a hip district in Istanbul, they don’t seem to be so preoccupied with this issue.

Text by Mila Emmer, photos by Unsplash

At at least 85 percent of the tables of the hundreds of restaurants in the densely built streets of the Beşiktaş neighbourhood, are sitting a few, or groups of smokers. This is not limited to the heated terraces of the establishments, but inside the cafes and restaurants one sometimes has to venture through a curtain of smoke to take a bite of their fresh fish.

After dispensing the cigarette in an iron ashtray on the table, it is professionally emptied by one of the many waiters and replaced by a clean one. “Nobody wants to look at a cigarette bud,” says Murat, a waiter at one of the fish restaurants. It happens regularly that you take a bite of your Turkish mezze while a fresh cigarette is lit at the table next to you. For non-smokers (and smokers themselves) it’s not really the ideal situation if you prefer to enjoy your meal smoke-free. “Almost everyone smokes here and if you don’t. Ah…”, Murat says as he shrugs his shoulders.

The rules seem to be quite lenient.

Beşiktaş is not the only place where smokers can feel at ease, as smoking is still permitted almost everywhere in Istanbul. Since 2009, it has been forbidden by law to smoke in restaurants and bars, but the rules seem to be quite lenient. The moment you walk outside for a cigarette, an ashtray is quickly put on the indoor table. “The police never come by”, Murat says. If anyone comes by to check, a lot of restaurant owners warn each other. And that’s a pity, because a good follow up of the alleged ‘prevention scheme’ should actually make it easier for smokers to quit, for non-smokers to second-hand smoke less and for non-smokers not to start.

Besides the ‘normal smoking’ you also have many shisha lounges where you can smoke pipes, which is perhaps even worse than smoking cigarettes. The danger of shisha smoking is that the smoker is exposed to harmful substances for a longer period of time. If the user smokes a water pipe for about an hour, this can equal the amount of the smoke of a hundred cigarettes (!). The Dutch Municipal Health Service (GGD) therefore warns for the long-term health consequences for smokers of the nicely smelling and tasting fruit tobacco.

About 83,100 people die from tobacco-caused diseases in Turkey each year.

The leading resource on tobacco use and its impact on world health, Tobacco Atlas, indicates that about 14.5 million adults and 252,000 children in Turkey smoke every day. The organization states that about 83,100 people die from tobacco-caused diseases in Turkey each year. Tobacco Atlas is supported by the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation.

These organizations strive to reduce the number of people with lung diseases worldwide. Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that most governments have failed to address tobacco as a public health crisis. Following the publication of the study in 2008, Turkey was one of seven countries that implemented comprehensive smoke-free laws in 2009. But the fact that smoking is so integrated in the Turkish culture, makes it hard to fully ban. “It’s really part of our social life. Getting coffee, going out for dinner, drinking in general; there is always a reason to smoke”, Enez says, student at Bilgi University.

As long as people can make a lot of money with it, it’s not about the health of the public.

Last April, the Turkish Health Minister said that the ministry maintains its determination and won’t take a step back fighting against smoking. However, the number of smokers has recently risen again with 31 percent, after the substantial drop of 27 percent just after the implementation of the law. The measures introduced so far do not seem to be really helping. And according to the students, that’s not very surprising. “As long as people can make a lot of money with it, it’s not about the health of the public, but about the income of the state”, says Enez while he blows out the smoke of his cigarette.