On World No-Tobacco Day, Bulgaria faces new smoking ban debate

As annual World No-Tobacco Day is marked on May 31 2013, with the World Health Organisation and European Union among those stepping up calls in the campaign against smoking, Bulgaria finds itself back in the debate on the June 2012 ban on smoking in public places.

This is a direct consequence of the outcome of Bulgaria’s national parliamentary elections on May 12, which saw the party that legislated the full ban on smoking in restaurants and hotels again get the largest share of seats in Parliament but not enough to govern, meaning it had to make way for a government led by the second-placed socialist party.

Late in 2012, knowing that elections were on the way, the Bulgarian Socialist Party added to its platform a pledge to ease back on the full ban on smoking in public places. The minority party that lent the socialists the quorum to be able to get its government approved, Volen Siderov’s ultra-nationalists Ataka, also had a backtrack on the smoking ban on its election platform. The socialists’ partner, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, has a significant electorate in Bulgaria’s tobacco-growing areas.

Lest there be any doubt, the prime minister put in place by the socialists, Plamen Oresharski, confirmed as he was poised to take office that it was possible that the June 2012 law would be revised.

Rival camps

Immediately, the rival camps, for and against the ban, took up arms. In the second half of 2012, the hotel and restaurant industry had fought a rearguard action against the ban, claiming huge losses of earnings – to the industry and so to the state’s coffers – and consequent huge losses of jobs.

The association was received by the leadership of the new government and soon it seemed that the failed attempts to amend the law would be back on the agenda of Parliament.

In the uncomfortable position of holding the portfolio of protecting public health while elected on the ticket of a party that said it would ease the smoking ban, newly-appointed Health Minister Tanya Andreeva said that her personal opinion as a doctor and a non-smoker was against an easing of the ban.

But, said Andreeva, while her ministry would not table legislation opening the way for a backtrack on the ban, it was a legislative matter and “the National Assembly has the final word on the issue”.

Her predecessor in office, Desislava Atanasova, health minister in the final year of the centre-right GERB government and on whose watch the ban was passed (and who has tended to not take kindly to journalists’ questions about whether she still smokes) spoke out strongly against easing the ban.

European behaviour’

It had been less than a year since the ban came into force on June 1, and approval of the law by the previous Parliament had been “European behaviour”, Atanasova said.

“There is no European country that would not take such a step in the name of public health and I think it would be a mistake to go back.”

Referring to statistics that about 100 Bulgarian citizens are registered every day as having cancer, Atanasova said that bringing back smoking in public places of entertainment – those campaigning for the backtrack want a return to the system of separate smoking and non-smoking areas – “means bringing back the main risk factors for the health of Bulgarian citizens and that, I think, would be a total mistake”.

She said, “we have to forget populism and election promises and really be aware that this ban is beneficial to adolescents and has a preventative nature”.

Other voices were raised against a rethink of the ban, including that of the lobby group Bulgaria Without Smoke, which organised a public protest to be held on May 31. After the ban came into effect in 2012, the group not only created an unofficial network to report breaches of the law, but also turned out in public protests when amendments were tabled.

Responding to claims by Ataka leader Siderov about huge sums lost to the national budget because of the smoking ban, Roumen Draganov, of the Institute for Analysis and Assessment of Tourism, said that Siderov’s figures were wrong because they failed to take account of statistics for the number of foreign visitors.

Political question

With a changed configuration in Parliament after the elections, the question now is whether amendments backtracking on the ban would pass.

According to a report in Bulgarian mass-circulation daily Trud, they well might. Quoting its own informal survey of the members of the 42nd National Assembly, Trud said that not only would BSP and Ataka MPs vote in favour of such amendments, some GERB members might break ranks against their own leadership, while MRF MPs were likely to support the amendments too, even though officially the party has not taken a position on the question.

However, any such move by Parliament would not necessarily win widespread public support.

Surveys earlier in 2013 said that most Bulgarians supported the ban.

The BSP, even though it increased the number of its voters, still ran second and probably would not be well-advised to believe that those extra votes came from people whose minds were made up on the basis of the smoking issue.

In turn, public mobilisation against changing back the law also manifested itself online, with – by mid-week, ahead of May 31 World No-Tobacco Day and the June 1 anniversary – about 24 000 people having signed an online petition against easing the ban.

The Association of Bulgarian Tour Operators and Travel Agents also was not keen on easing the ban. Association chairperson Irina Georgieva said that the ban on smoking in restaurants and hotels was an advantage for Bulgarian tourism “if we really want to attract families as clients”.

Foreign tourists would not look kindly on smoking in restaurants, and even those who smoked had no objection to the ban because similar such bans were in place in their own countries, she said.

Europe and the world

Ahead of World No Tobacco Day, European Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner Tonio Borg called on members of the European Parliament and Europe’s health ministers to support a European Commission proposal on tobacco products, intended to make smoking less attractive to young people.

“As 70 per cent of smokers in the European Union start before the age of 18, we must strive to make tobacco products and smoking less attractive to young people. The time has come to put an end to cigarettes for teenagers,” Borg said.

Borg said that the time had come to rule out increasingly flavoured and attractive tobacco products targeted at very young people.

“Tobacco products should not look like toys or cosmetics, or taste like vanilla or chocolate. Tobacco products should look and taste like tobacco products and Europe needs solid legislation to ensure this.

“I look forward to a fruitful discussion with Member States at the EPSCO Council on June 21 on how we can move forward together on this important piece of legislation that can make a major difference to people’s health in Europe,” Commissioner Borg said.

In its message for the 2013 World No-Tobacco Day, the World Health Organisation called for countries to ban all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship to help reduce the number of tobacco users.

Tobacco use kills nearly six million people every year, WHO said.

Bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship are one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco consumption, with countries that have already introduced bans showing an average of seven per cent reduction in tobacco consumption, WHO said.

Research shows about one third of youth experimentation with tobacco occurs as a result of exposure to tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Worldwide, 78 per cent of young people aged 13-15 years report regular exposure to some form of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

“Tobacco use ranks right at the very top of the list of universal threats to health yet is entirely preventable,” WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said. “Governments must make it their top priority to stop the tobacco industry’s shameless manipulation of young people and women, in particular, to recruit the next generation of nicotine addicts.”

“Most tobacco users start their deadly drug dependence before the age 20”, says Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO’s Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases department. “Banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship is one of the best ways to protect young people from starting smoking as well as reducing tobacco consumption across the entire population.”

‘Stealth marketing’

Dr Bettcher warns however that, even when bans are in place, the tobacco industry is constantly finding new tactics to target potential smokers including:

* handing out gifts and selling branded products such as clothing, in particular targeting young people;

* “stealth” marketing such as engaging trendsetters to influence people in places such as cafes and nightclubs;

* using online and new media, such as pro-smoking smartphone applications and online discussions led by tobacco company staff posing as consumers;

* placement of tobacco products and brands in films and television, including reality TV and soap operas; and

* corporate social responsibility activities such as making donations to charities.

“That is why the ban has to be complete in order to be fully effective,” he added.

Countries and banning tobacco advertising

WHO’s report on the global tobacco epidemic 2011 shows that only 19 countries (representing just six per cent of the world’s population) have reached the highest level of achievement in banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. More than one third of countries have minimal or no restrictions at all.

Countries that are making strong progress in banning the last remaining forms of advertising

‘Tobacco kills millions’ – WHO

Tobacco kills up to half its users, WHO said.

By 2030, WHO estimates that tobacco will kill more than eight million people every year, with four out of five of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. Tobacco is a major risk factor for noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases.




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.