AFP - Turkey went smoke-free Sunday as the government introduced a ban in bars, cafes and restaurants -- despite business owners' protests -- in a bid to break the national addiction to nicotine.
Strongly supported by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a tobacco hater, the smoking ban came into effect at midnight as ashtrays were removed from tables inside these establishments and smokers stepped outside for a puff.
"The saying 'smoke like a Turk' is now a thing of the past," said the liberal Radikal daily on its front page, likening the ban to a "revolution" in a country where people could smoke even on buses 15 years ago. The popular Aksam daily simply said "The End".
Sunday's measure is an extension to a May 2008 ban on smoking in workplaces and indoor public spaces. Health Minister Recep Akdag says it has reduced the number of smokers by seven percent and tobacco consumption by 20 percent since its introduction.
Official statistics say almost one in three adults smoke in Turkey -- and that rate that reaches 48 percent among men -- putting the country in 10th place in tobacco consumption in the world.
Smoking-related illnesses are responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths a year and are a huge burder on the economy, according to the World Health Organization.
"People spend 15 to 20 billion dollars (10.6 to 14.1 billion euros) to buy cigarettes each year," Tokat Erguder, who run's the WHO's tobacco-control programme in Turkey, said in a newspaper interview.
"In addition, the state has an annual expenditure of 3.4 to 4.5 billion dollars" to pay for the treatment of smoking-related illnesses, he added.
Recent surveys suggest that there is widespread public support of up to 95 percent for the smoking ban, but some smokers say the ban is excessive.
"I find the ban a bit extreme and Jacobinic... The state will never get people to quit smoking by banning tobacco use," Semsi Guler, a retired lawyer, said sitting outside a cafe in capital Ankara's Tunali district.
"People will now stay home to smoke to their liking," he added.
Bar and cafe owners have long protested that they will lose business during what is already an economic crisis.
They want to be able to set up separate smoking sections on their premises, but their calls for a delay in the implementation of the ban have been rejected by the government.
An association of traditional coffeehouse owners said they were mulling a legal appeal against the ban.
"Ninety-five percent of those who come to coffeehouses smoke," Huseyin Menekse, from the association's executive board, told the Anatolia news agency.
"The ban means that people will no longer come to these establishment, forcing them to close up one by one,"
Bars in the downtown Sakarya district of the capital Ankara sported posters that read "We are against smoking and the smoking ban".
Despite the ban however, many doubt that the anti-smoking measure will be applied uniformly throughout the country.
While city bars and cafes will face regular inspection, it will harder to enforce the ban in coffeehouses in rural villages, where men while away their time drinking tea and smoking.
Under the ban, owners of bars and restaurants are supposed to first warn a customer who insists on lighting up, then refuse to serve him and if that does not work to call the police.
Flouting the ban can lead to a fine of 69 liras (45 dollars, 32 euros) for the smoker, while the establishment itself will have to pay 560 liras for a first-time offence and up to 5,600 liras for repeat offences.
Local authorities have drafted in some 5,000 inspectors to check that premises are implementing the ban.