It's Friday night at the Grand Khaan Irish Pub and the house band is covering an Eric Clapton song, the waitresses are delivering pints of beer to patrons and thick clouds of cigarette smoke are wafting into the rafters.
It's a familiar scene in the numerous pubs across this country, as many Mongolians fancy a drag on a cigarette while drinking beer or after a big meal. But it's also a scene due for change with Parliament's adoption last week of a strict anti-smoking law.
The new law bans smoking in all public areas, including bars, restaurants, office buildings, playgrounds, parks and apartment stairwells. It applies to common areas in hotels, too, although some hotel floors will still allow smoking.
"It's tough. I smoke. But I am trying to quit, maybe this will help me do it," said Grand Khaan patron Dale Choi, a smoker for more than 20 years.
Violators of the law will be slapped with an MNT50,000 fine. (HK$281). Businesses that allow smoking will be hit with an MNT3 million fine, while officials that permit smoking in their officials will receive a fine of MNT1 million. The law comes into effect on March 1.
Smoking habits in Mongolia are a growing problem, says Tsogzolmaa Bayandorj, a National Officer for non-communicable diseases at the World Health Organisation. According to WHO data collected in 2009, 48 per cent of Mongolian men and seven per cent of Mongolian women smoke regularly.
"The situation has grown worse over the past 20 years due to increased production and importation of cheap cigarettes, mainly from China and Russia," said Tsogzolmaa.
Young people are particularly susceptible and a target for domestic tobacco companies, he said. In a 2010 survey, 23.3 per cent of Mongolians aged between 13 and 15 admitted smoking regularly.
One provision of the law aims to shield youths from nicotine addiction by banning cigarette sales within 500 metres of any school or university.
Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a member of parliament, said strict enforcement would be key and outlined a five-month period for police and government to collaborate on proper implementation. "Mongolia is becoming increasingly worried about growing smoking habits among young people and the dramatic increase of lung disease," said Oyungerel.
Tsogzolmaa said specific data on lung disease attributable to smoking in Mongolia was not available but research indicated non-communicable diseases, such as cancers, were the country's number one killer.
Around Ulan Bator, there was a mixed reaction to Parliament's decision, with some offering praise and others criticism.
At the ever-smoky 100 Per Cent Bar, customer Erkhem Oyunbayar called the law a violation of human rights. The owner of the bar, Anaraa Nyamdorj, said his business would be affected because customers would be forced out into the cold weather to smoke cigarettes, rather than stay indoors to drink beer.
"Our climate is harsh. We are under snow for six months of the year, so it's very tough. Also, smoking and drinking are both part of bar culture, you can't separate them," he said.
But at a table nearby, student Enkhbayar Dambadarjaa was mostly pleased with the law.
"I am a smoker but I think the government's decision is really cool. Cigarette smoke is disturbing, especially on the dance floor or in at a restaurant," she said. "It's just going to be hard to go outside for a smoke in winter."Topics: Smoking Ban Smoking Mongolia Health