Turkish police hit drivers with new smoking fines

Turkish police began imposing fines on drivers smoking in their cars after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has led a personal drive against cigarettes, said last week that he had issued orders to ban smoking in private vehicles.

Erdoğan told reporters he had seen a driver smoking in a car carrying children. “Why are those people not fined? Smoking in private vehicles should also be banned totally,” Erdoğan told a news conference before he left for New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

A 2013 law banned drivers smoking in cars and taxis, and for all those using public transport and commercial vehicles. But the fines were not enforced against car and taxi drivers.

They now risk paying a 153-lira ($27) fine for smoking in their vehicles. Turkish police last week fined 5,063 drivers in one day, levying a total of more than $135,000 in penalties, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Erdoğan is known for his staunch opposition to smoking. Turkey has implemented nearly all the anti-smoking measures suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"It is my personal principle to fight smoking like I do against all harmful habits. The state has to protect its citizens against tobacco, alcohol and drugs, just like it is obliged to protect them against crimes from theft to terrorism," Erdoğan said in 2016 when he met with 250 former smokers he had persuaded to quit in the presidential palace on the World Smoking Cessation Day.

But the fines have been criticised even by some in the normally loyal pro-government media, such as Sabah newspaper columnist Mehmet Barlas, for violating privacy.

Others agreed. Nilgün Kaygusuz said the latest fines were a blow to freedom.

“My car is my private property, why should I pay a fine?” she asked. “Can Erdoğan care about my child more than me?”

The new fines have received a mixed public reception.

“I tell my customers to have their 153 lira ready if they want to smoke,” said taxi driver Melih Özdoğan. “I usually smoke when I stop the car, but for example when I go to the airport and return with no customers on the way back, I light a cigarette. A few minutes ago someone kicked my car for not letting him smoke.”

Turkey increased the special consumption tax on cigarettes in January to 67 percent from 63 percent. In July, the rate was hiked again and Turkey now leads the world in taxes levied on cigarettes, now at 87 percent.

There is also a special consumption tax on car purchases ranging from 45 percent to 100 percent, depending on engine size, and Turkish fuel is also heavily taxed, resulting in some of the most expensive petrol prices in the world. Then there are also tolls for motorways and bridges.

“I agree with the opinion that they are just trying to collect money,” said driver Ersin Gürmen.

According to the World Health Organisation, 41 percent of Turkish men and 16 percent of Turkish women smoked in 2015, that compares to 20 percent of men and 18 percent of women in Britain, and 14 percent of men and 12 percent of women in the United States.

Serkan Arduç, a minibus driver, said he was happy with the new fines. “I am also a smoker, but I support the decision to ban smoking in vehicles, because sometimes there are children in cars. It is good for both health and attention. And the vehicles stink,” he said.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.