In a Smoky Haze, Turks Cling to Their Cigarettes


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Smokers with cigarettes and water pipes outside a cafe in Istanbul this month. Turkey’s efforts to impose restrictions and counteract its reputation for smoking have made little impact.

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Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

ISTANBUL — The Italians have a saying for it: “Fuma come un turco,” meaning, “He smokes like a Turk.”

There are actually plenty of people who smoke more than the Turks, but there are times when a visitor here may find that hard to believe.

The famous Istiklal Avenue, one of the world’s most appealing pedestrian spaces with its cobbled pavement and little red trams clacking down the middle, bells dinging, can be covered over on a crowded weekend night by an inescapably dense, mile-long cloud of secondhand smoke, hovering between the elegant, tall buildings on either side.

Along dusky alleyways in Kadikoy, the trendiest part of Istanbul, on the once less fashionable Asian side of the Bosporus, cafes typically have a few tables inside and many more outside — where smoking is allowed. On even the coldest days, the outside tables are crowded, smokers kept warm by overhead heaters and lap blankets provided at each chair.

Some restaurants go so far as to remove their outside walls, replacing them with transparent plastic sheeting, to make the entire place at least officially outdoors.

If the government has its way, however, the cafe culture’s smoking days are numbered. In April it proposed a law limiting outside smoking tables to no more than 25 percent of an establishment’s total — almost the reverse of the present trend, at least in major cities like Istanbul.

That prospect is greeted with horror in the cafes. “If there’s such a law, we’ll have to close down,” said a waiter named Okan, at a hip bar in Kadikoy. (He asked that the bar not be named, as there were not only smoking scofflaws inside, but Che Guevara posters and hammer-and-sickle logos too.) “We don’t want to get shut down.”

Turkey has made tremendous efforts to counteract its reputation — and its smoking habit — with measures that are nearly as strict as those in any Western country, and far stricter than those found in most developing societies. It has outlawed smoking in public places, not only inside restaurants but also outside government buildings, and even banned it above decks on the innumerable ferry boats plying the Bosporus.

Turkey’s nonsmoker-in-chief, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, used his growing power and popularity to push through most of these antismoking measures beginning in 2008. Even the cherished tradition of the nargile, or Turkish water pipe, in which flavored plugs of tobacco are smoked through long tubes that cool the smoke, has faced tough legislation during his administration.

As Mr. Erdogan famously said, “There can be no such freedom as the freedom to smoke,” likening it to suicide. Turkey’s health system even pays for drug and nicotine replacement cessation therapies, and some doctors regularly text their smoker patients to remind them of the risks. When a cigarette appears in a movie, Turkish censors either blur it or put a cartoon flower over it.

As progressive as those measures may be, they have had relatively little impact on getting Turks to cut back. The percentage of smoking Turks did initially fall in the years after the new measures, and continued to decline among young people, according to the latest government figures, from 2012. But more recent data from the Turkish Thoracic Association in 2014 show a slight increase in the percentage of smokers: 42 percent of men and 13 percent of women.

That may well be because taxation of cigarettes and tobacco products in Turkey remains substantially below the guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization. A pack of brand-name cigarettes here costs $3, compared with as much as $15 in some European countries.

Three dollars is a lot of money for people on the modest salaries paid here, although not enough to affect habits in a country where many people can remember a time when it was common to smoke inside hospitals.

Many Turkish smokers feel aggrieved by the changes, and reports that smoking bans may be extended to parks and other outdoor spaces distress them further. Ismail Gungor, 26, a lawyer, is a two-pack-a-day smoker who says “my aim is to turn my mustache yellow — I’ll smoke as long as my health allows it.” But he’s tired of freezing half to death in the process, when he goes to restaurants and bars, and feels there should be licensed places for smokers to frequent.

He was at the Tarantula Cafe drinking — and smoking — with his friend Gurkan Kurt, 26, an engineer. Mr. Kurt had quit smoking for three days, until he met up with Mr. Gungor on a recent Saturday.

“Oh, well,” he said.

Government regulation is not the only obstacle faced by Turkish smokers, who are more than three times as likely to be men. “The women smoke less, and they’re always pressuring us to quit smoking,” Mr. Gungor said. Mr. Kurt does not have that problem. “I don’t tell them I smoke,” he said.

Like many other Turkish smokers, they do not dispute their country’s nicotine-stained reputation. Barkan Karsh, a Turkish academic consultant who works in Macedonia, said people there not only use the “smokes like a Turk” expression, but they also use a Turkish word for tobacco, “tutun,” as slang for a cigarette.

This is a bit rich, because Macedonia ranks fourth-highest among countries in per capita cigarette consumption, according to the Tobacco Atlas, published by an antismoking group, while Turkey is only 29th. “Even Macedonians say they should change ‘smokes like a Turk’ to ‘smokes like a Macedonian,’” Mr. Karsh said. Somehow, it doesn’t have quite the same ring.

“Actually it’s kind of an urban legend that Turks smoke so much,” Gokhan Bicici, a local journalist, said. “Especially younger people are smoking much less.”

He has a point. The Tobacco Atlas maintains that some countries consume more than twice as many cigarettes per person as Turkey, among them Montenegro (the world leader with 4,124 cigarettes consumed per adult annually), Belarus and Lebanon. Macedonia and Russia are nearly as bad.

As for Italy, it’s really not much better than Turkey. No. 34 among nations in smoking, Italians consume roughly the same number of cigarettes as Turks. According to World Health Organization data for Turkey and Italy, fewer adult Italians are smokers than adult Turks, but among young people, smoking rates are more than twice as high in Italy. Perhaps the expression should actually be, “Fuma come un italiano” (or, as they say in Turkish, “O bir Italyan gibi sigara iciyor”).

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