As Cambodia gears up to ban smoking in public places, Marissa Carruthers explores what it will mean and what is the popular public opinion. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

The air heavy with smoke, Heng Phalla often found herself gasping when she visited many of the capital’s restaurants and bars. “In some places, I could barely breathe,” the 26-year-old says. “And I would leave smelling bad, of stale smoke. It was unpleasant.”

Heng and her group of non-smoking Cambodian friends were often forced to visit venues and sit outside in the heat, rather than enjoy their preferred option: the cool of an air-conditioned room. “Sometimes we could not cope because of all the smoke,” the bank worker says. “We had to leave.”

In recent years, as the smoking ban has swept across the globe, an increasing number of the Kingdom’s venues, especially those serving food, have put a stop to smoking in enclosed places, leaving smokers wanting to feed their addiction to go outside.

But earlier this year, efforts to end smoking in public places stepped up a gear when the government announced it will start slapping any individuals and businesses caught flouting the law with fines. As part of a sub-decree approved in March, from Sep. 16, establishments face a $12.50 fine if they fail to display no smoking signs in Khmer and English, or provide customers with ashtrays. Smokers will also be hit with a $5 fine for smoking.

The decree is based on the law on tobacco control, which was passed by the National Assembly last year. It bans the consumption of tobacco products, including smoking and chewing tobacco, at the workplace and public areas, such as restaurants, hotels and on public transport.

In the run-up to September’s enforcement, the Ministry of Health is running an awareness drive, explaining the legislation and the penalties for ignoring the law brings. A campaign to encourage smokers to quit has also been rolled out across the country. And in February, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who packed in his 40-year habit in 2014 after 12 failed attempts, took to his Facebook page to urge Cambodians – “especially youth” – to follow in his footsteps.

The latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which helped to draft the law, reveal there are almost two million tobacco users in Cambodia. Of those, 1.5 million are estimated to smoke, with the rest chewing tobacco. WHO also estimates about 10,000 deaths a year are due to tobacco-related illnesses.

Metro Hassakan on the capital’s riverside was one of the first restaurants to introduce a smoking ban in 2006. Up until earlier this year, it operated a strict no smoking policy until 10pm, when the kitchen closed. Owners say they made the move to keep the restaurant in line with other countries that were introducing bans at around that time. It now operates a full smoking ban inside.

George Norbert-Munns, who co-owns a string of bars across Phnom Penh, says a no smoking policy already exists in some of his venues. Cicada operates a ban on smoking because of its intimate size, as does restaurant, Meat & Drink. However, smoking is allowed in The Library, on Bassac Lane, due to the open air setting. “I welcome the changes,” Norbert-Munns says. “People need to stop focusing on the smoker, who will have to go outside to have a cigarette, and start thinking about non-smoking patrons and staff.”

Fuelled by watching those close to her suffer from cancer and lung diseases, British expat and former social smoker Nicole Dulieu packed in her habit in April, and has been reaping the rewards ever since. Last month, she completed the 10km section of Phnom Penh International Half Marathon unhampered by the health issues that often dog smokers.

“In training, I could really feel the difference in my stamina,” says the 25-year-old. “Before I was gasping for air and sweating in this heat. Now I’m just sweating.”

Factors such as cigarettes costing significantly less than in some Western countries, – in the UK a packet costs about $12 – and smokers currently able to indulge in their habit fairly freely, fuel the fire when it comes to expat smokers living in the Kingdom.

“Smoking has a predominantly social aspect in Phnom Penh, with a plethora of outdoor venues to choose from and packets costing less than $2,” says Dulieu. “I think the smoking ban will really help those trying to quit from stumbling into the same drinking and smoking traps; and provide a healthier option.”

Tips to Help Quit
+ Take it one day at a time, and if you lapse don’t see it as failure.
+ Analyse your behaviour and adapt your routine.
+Drink fruit juice during the first few days to help flush the nicotine from your body.
+Tell others around you that you that you have given up.
+Get moving. A five-minute walk or stretch can help cut cravings.
+Download an app, such as Butt Out ($3.99) and Kwit (free).