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Water pipe ban lights up Jordan's smokers

Enforcing a ban on argileh, or shisha, re-ignites the smoking debate in Amman's cafe culture.

Last updated: 14 Feb 2014 19:45
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Ashraf al-Jerres says that, if the ban is enforced, he will have to close his four cafes [Elizabeth Whitman/Al Jazeera]

Amman, Jordan - Tempers were getting fired up in the crowded assembly hall near downtown Amman, where hundreds had gathered to watch a public debate on a recent government decision not to renew licenses for venues serving argileh water pipes - also known as hookah or shisha pipes.

Comments from the audience ratcheted tensions to a new level, as attendees jostled for the microphone - and one even shouted at the mayor, who was one of the debaters that evening.

"We were expecting a fight at any time," Sami Hourani, who moderated the debate and heads Diwanieh, the group that organised it, said - with a slight smile.

In early January, following a Ministry of Health decision to continue enforcing a 2008 public health law banning smoking in public places, the Greater Amman Municipality announced it would neither renew licenses nor issue new ones for restaurants and cafes to serve argileh. All licenses expire on March 31.

Roughly processed tobacco is mixed with flavourings, then
smoked using coals through a water pipe [AFP]

The decision sparked a furious outcry from cafe owners, who say the ban was a surprise and argue that it will hurt Jordan's economy and their businesses. The mayor of Amman has said he will not back down from the ban, but many cafe owners are determined to push for an alternative that would allow them to continue serving the popular pipes.

Health officials and anti-smoking activists, meanwhile, consider such a ban long overdue. The fact that tobacco use is one of the leading factors contributing to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, is well established, and NCDs - which are responsible for about half of all deaths in Jordan - cost the country more than $1.3 billion annually.

Enforcing the law

Technically, Jordan's Public Health Law Number 47 of 2008 prohibits smoking in public places. The law is poorly enforced, however, and even flouted with flair - particularly in government institutions, where employees will light up next to "no smoking" signs. 

Back in 2009, following directives to ban smoking in malls and the international airport, the Minister of Health sent a letter to the chairman of the Jordan Restaurant Association, which represents restaurants and cafes, explicitly designating restaurants as public spaces and requesting that the chairman declare venues under the JRA "smoke-free" and "dedicate areas for smoking in your restaurants," with clear specifications.

That missive, too, has been implemented in a piecemeal fashion.

Mohammad Madfai, secretary-general of the JRA, which represents 840 restaurants and cafes, said that the association opposes the recent argileh ban, calling it "a confusing step".

"We are not [pro] smoking," he told Al Jazeera, adding that the JRA would "love to see Jordan as a model for being a non-smoking country". But "we cannot start doing that in hours and days", which he said was precisely what the ministry has done.

You can't just ban argileh. No-one will go [to a restaurant without argileh], and it will reduce the number of employees.

Mohammad Madfai, Jordan Restaurant Association

Yet Fatima Khalifeh, chief of the tobacco control department at the Ministry of Health, said that, contrary to popular belief, the law was being applied gradually, beginning with cinemas and schools, and slowly adding more places.

Mervat Mheirat, director of Amman's health supervision department, noted that, in 2010, the municipality stopped issuing new argileh licenses. In doing so, officials were simply enforcing the law, as instructed by the minister of health, by refusing "licensing or relicensing or transferring of ownership for argileh cafes and restaurants".

An economic blow?

Estimates of the number of argileh-only cafes in Amman vary. Municipal officials put it at 381, while Madfai said the number was closer to 1,000. In addition to those cafes are restaurants that serve argileh, but not as their main offering.

"You can't just ban argileh," Madfai said. "No-one will go [to a restaurant without argileh], and it will reduce the number of employees."

The overall impact of an argileh ban on Jordan's economy remains clouded in metaphorical smoke. At the debate, Essam Fakhriddin, the head of the JRA, said argileh brought the government about $56.5 million each year in taxes and fees. Hourani, the debate moderator, disagreed. "We could not get good arguments and statistics" on the economic impact, he said.

Armando Peruga, programme manager of the World Health Organisation's Tobacco Free Initiative, said in an email that "smoke-free polices do not have an adverse economic impact on the business activity of restaurants, bars, or establishments catering to tourists".

He pointed to "a rearrangement of client-use patterns", where those looking for a smoke-free environment would replace smokers who decide "not to patronise their regular establishment".

Many studies actually found "a small positive effect" of smoking bans, including improved employee health and productivity, and reduced spending on cleaning and potential litigation, said Peruga: "The use of emergency services for heart problems caused by tobacco drop significantly and quickly." 

Although the overall effect may be positive on a macro level, for individuals who believe they are facing the potential death of their business, a ban on argileh can be extremely concerning. Jafar Adil Bani 'Issa, has spent the past several months renovating his cafe, Bravo, in a popular tourist district. 

"When we began to plan to reopen, we didn't know about the ban," he said. His cafe serves argileh and non-alcoholic drinks - but not food. "Anyone who comes here comes to smoke shisha."

Bani 'Issa said the decision, which he says came as a complete surprise to him, was "wrong".

"We won't be quiet about this," he warned.

Health aspects

"It's a shame for an educated generation to argue" on behalf of smoking, said Faten Haddad, a co-founder of the NGO Smoke Free Jordan. "If you want to smoke, stay away from others and don't harm them."

From the archives: Egypt attempts crackdown on shisha
[04 December 2009] 

According to a report by the King Hussein Cancer Centre on tobacco use in Jordan, 55 percent of men and eight percent of women above the age of 18 use tobacco, primarily smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, 83 percent of Jordanians are exposed to second-hand smoke in social situations.

Larissa Aluar, another co-founder of Smoke Free Jordan, explained that what makes argileh so dangerous to public health is the toxic combination of social acceptability and a lack of awareness about its health effects.

Among youth, "smoking [cigarettes] is not accepted, while smoking shisha is," she said. The most recent Global Youth Tobacco Survey, from 2009, found that, among Jordanian middle schoolers, 15.6 percent of girls and 27.1 percent of boys smoked shisha, but only 11 percent of boys and girls smoked cigarettes. The average argileh session lasts one hour and is said to be the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes.

"Tobacco does not build economies. It cripples them," said Aluar, suggesting that, instead of looking at the economic losses from banning argileh, people ought to consider its costs in healthcare and lost productivity.

At noon in a dimly lit argileh cafe, 40-year-old Awni Khateeb drew deeply on the long tube connected to an argileh - double apple, his favourite flavour - as the water in the hookah's bowl gurgled.

The owner of a building supply store, he visits the same coffee shop almost daily to smoke argileh. He estimates he smokes three times a day for an hour each time and spends about $4.25 to $7 per day on his habit, whether at home or in a cafe.

He opposes the ban: "Where will we go to smoke argileh?"

Follow Elizabeth Whitman on Twitter: @elizabethwhitty

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Al Jazeera
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