by Burak Akinci
ANKARA, Sept. 28 (Xinhua) -- Turkey has extended an existing all-out ban on smoking in public places to private cars, stirring controversy.
The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently implemented a ban in personal vehicles that went into effect this week in the country of heavy smokers.
More than 5,000 people have been fined up to 153 liras (27 U.S. dollars) each for smoking in their cars since the ban went into effect, the Ministry of Interior said on Wednesday, pointing out that up to 150,000 cars have been checked during an operation across the country.
The bust was a major operation, involving over 37,000 police personnel and 169 sniffer dogs. In major cities, police can access CCTV for photos of the license plates of cars in which suspects are smoking.
One driver fined in the central province of Aksaray, Israfil Akpinar, was stunned about the new ban and reacted somewhat sarcastically.
"We are not allowed to smoke in public places, nor in open spaces as well like courtyards or near hospitals or schools. Where are we supposed to smoke then?" said the angry driver, the private Demiroren News Agency (DHA) reported.
Erdogan has long been credited with his fight against tobacco addiction, as well as alcohol. The latest ban followed his remarks to reporters where he reportedly said: "I sometimes see drivers smoking in cars, and whenever I see them, I warn them, tell them. It's shameful."
The new ban was largely hailed by medical organizations and health groups but the public reaction to it was mixed as it is considered as an assault to one's private space.
"Cigarette smoking is very harmful, but fining someone smoking in his private car is incomprehensible... Private car equals to private space. It's none of their (government) business," Umit Nazli Boyner, a prominent businesswoman, was quoted as saying by local press.
Boyner, former head of Turkey's powerful association of businesspeople TUSIAD, denounced the government's decision as an infringement of personal rights while insisting that she is not a smoker herself.
Lawyers are also divided on the new ban.
"According to law, one's private car is regarded as a private domain, but when you drive in your car, the vehicle enters public domain. Thus the ban is legally enforceable and drivers can be fined," argued lawyer Rezan Ozdemir while other lawyers claim that a private car is the private space of a citizen.
Meanwhile, some drivers attempted to circumvent the ban, as a video went viral on social media, where a man is seen in his car with two tubes in his mouth, one from which he takes a big drag of smoke and blows it outside his window on the other.
"I'm not smoking in my car. I have invented this system to prevent my fellow cigarette smoker brothers from being fined by the police," said the driver smiling in the video.
Nevertheless, the government is adamant on enforcing the law and Erdogan has said that new regulations are underway against smoking, such as a total ban on vaping and electronic cigarettes and new regulations regarding hookah or water pipe cafes, which are popular in big cities.
These measures follow newly published data showing that there have been more smokers in Turkey despite government-initiated regulations and campaigns discouraging smoking.
About 83,000 people die from tobacco-caused diseases in Turkey each year, according to the Tobacco Atlas, an initiative supported by the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation.
About 31 percent of deaths among Turkish men can be attributed to tobacco-related diseases. Turkish men's rate of death from smoking is the second highest in the world after North Korea, according to the source.
Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said that despite the bans, tobacco use that had once fallen to 27 percent of the population in Turkey has increased to 31 percent again.
"We will take additional measures and effective steps to enforce the existing ban in closed spaces. These bans have to be very strictly enforced," he said.