EARLY last month, the North African Arab nation of Morocco banned smoking in public places, but the law took effect during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when smoking is forbidden anyway by the Koran between sunrise and sunset.
As a result, Moroccans have had little time to test the bid to bash the ash. But Ramadan ended Feb. 20. Now the nation's 2 million smokers - who buy 745 million packs of cigarettes each year - may face arrest if they smoke in public.
The government claims it is serious about enforcing the law, which not only bans public smoking but tobacco advertising as well. According to the Ministry of Public Health, people found smoking in the street will be fined up to 50 dirhams ($5.80). The minimum wage here is only 1,500 dirhams a month.
"The aim will be to create an antitobacco culture, to sensitize the adults, and help them to stop," says Noureddine Chaouki, head of the health advisory service at the ministry and the driving force behind the ban.
It has not been decided whether the police will be the ones to levy on-the-spot fines or whether offenders will have to attend court. "It's not easy to apply this kind of law," acknowledges Dr. Chaouki, who adds that Morocco is the first North African country to take these measures.
"The question will be: Where is [a] public [place]?" says one senior official at a government ministry in the capital, Rabat.
"I wouldn't smoke in the street anyway. But is my office public? Is the person at the desk next to me going to go and find a policeman to fine me because I'm smoking at my desk?'' he asks.
"The law is not just to stop smoking in public. It's also to stop the bureaucracy in favor of smoking," Chaouki says. "The law is the first step. Now we have to sensitize the young about the dangers to themselves and the danger inflicted on passive smokers."
The most Draconian measures have been directed at the media. Advertising by tobacco companies could bring a fine up to $348.
The government itself will be a big loser. Sixty-five percent of the price of a pack of cigarettes goes to the state in taxes, amounting to $58 million a year.