Smokers who light up in their own cars in Turkey now face a substantial fine in the latest salvo in a war on smoking spearheaded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Thousands of motorists have been fined in recent months and the policy has divided even Erdogan’s supporters in a country where nearly a fifth of the population are smokers.

The crackdown follows an interview Erdogan gave in September in which he told reporters, “I see the driver smokes. Sometimes, I point my finger, and I say, ‘such a shame’.

“We will include in written legislation that neither the driver nor the passenger in the backseat will smoke. We are now on it.”

Virtually overnight, a smoking ban – which had been in effect since 2013 – was enforced, ahead of planned legislation targeting other forms of smoking such as vaping.  The ban prohibits smoking in public vehicles as well as the driver’s seat of private cars. More than 5,000 people were fined TRY 153 each in the first week after Erdogan’s remarks.

Around 14.5 million Turks smoke, despite extensive government campaigns, high taxes on tobacco products and Erdogan’s repeated admonishments. 

Many Turks have welcomed the new rules because of their contributions to public safety. There were 1.2 million traffic accidents on Turkey’s roads last year.

Okan Gunduz, a smoker who usually opposes the government’s policies, says he supports the smoking bans. (Ufuk Çeri)

“I support the government’s smoking bans,” said Okan Gunduz, 20, a smoker who said he usually opposes the government’s policies. “Cigarettes, anyway, are harmful. We’ll take care of our own health and we’ll also drive safely thanks to this ban.” 

Driving instructor Melike Albayrak always urges her students not to smoke while driving. (Credit: Ufuk Çeri )

 “Smoking in vehicles increases the risk of fires,” agreed Melike Albayrak, a driving instructor who said she always urges her students not to smoke while driving. “Cigarette stubs thrown from the vehicle also cause a fire risk in the environment. It could even cause a forest fire.”

Sinan Anasin, another driving instructor, insisted that simply turning away from the road to stub out a cigarette could compromise a driver’s attention. 

“One time the wind blew my cigarette to the back of the seat while I was smoking in my private car and the seat was burnt a little,” he said. “A fire would have been inevitable if I hadn’t noticed.” 

Driving instructor Sinan Anasin claims that smoking in a car compromises a driver’s attention. (Credit: Ufuk Çeri )

Gonul Tali, 29, who is learning how to drive, said she also supported the ban.

“It’s already a narrow space in the car,” she said. “When someone smokes, it directly affects the non-smoker. I, as a non-smoker, don’t want to be exposed to smoke.”

But others see this as yet another attempt at government overreach on dubious legal grounds, and what amounts to a tax on those who do not adhere to the president’s brand of conservative piety. Erdogan has repeatedly described smoking as a sin, citing an opinion by the head of the country’s religious affairs department who condemned smoking because it harms the human body.

Gonul Tali,  who is learning how to drive, supports the ban on smoking in private vehicles. (Credit: Ufuk Çeri ) 

“It could be dangerous at traffic if the driver smokes, but I don’t think this law has anything to do with traffic,” said Sinan Tekdemir, a smoker. “The most tangible indicator of this is that Erdogan gave reference to the religious affairs administration while talking about cigarettes. Why not the ministry of health?”

“A smoking ban in a private car sounds like part of a policy to impose conservatism,” he added.

Cigarettes constitute around eight per cent of Turkey’s tax revenue, and individual packs are taxed at a rate higher than most of the rest of the world. Alcohol is also highly taxed.

“The secular segment is told to pay if you smoke and drink,” said Eren Can, a lawyer, who argued that better access to medicine rather than smoking bans ought to be the government’s priority.

Lawyer Eren Can argues that better access to medicine rather than smoking bans should be the government’s priority.

The way the rules were abruptly applied through a virtual presidential diktat has raised concerns over the control wielded by Erdogan, who has amassed enormous power in recent years as head of a reformed and strengthened executive branch.

“There is a problem here if an already existing law in force is abruptly applied one morning with a statement by the president,” Can continued. “This has nothing to do with a democratic society. This is the continuation of an autocratic attitude.”