Hookah cafes fight British smoking ban

Sunday, July 15, 2007

LONDON -- Gone are the sweet-smelling trails of smoke that used to bubble out of the water pipes at Al Arez cafe on Edgeware Road. Gone are five employees who Mohammed Khalil fired a day after Britain's national smoking ban went into effect last week.

And gone are many of the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian customers who used to pack into Al Arez to socialize and smoke the pipes, also known as hookah or shisha.

"This is a disaster for us," Khalil said over a cup of sweet Arabic coffee in an empty restaurant. "We don't drink. I don't smoke cigarettes. But we smoke shisha. It's part of our culture. And this is against our culture."

Khalil has joined the Edgeware Road Association and its Save Shisha Campaign, which is challenging the new law that bans smoking in all enclosed public places from work sites to pubs, company cars to shisha cafes. The association is seeking an exemption from the law, arguing that it is discriminatory and has a disproportionate effect on the largely Muslim communities who smoke the tobacco and fruit paste. The group sent a letter to the government on May 15 stating that the law would have a negative impact on "the culture and social practices and meeting places of the relevant ethnic minority communities."

They did not receive a response to that letter or to a subsequent letter sent on June 29, according to Ibrahim el-Nour, who is heading the campaign. He said the next step is to go to court to seek judicial review.

The cafe owners say the law is killing their businesses, with sales down 50 to 80 percent in the first week. They argue that second-hand shisha smoke is only about 20 percent tobacco and, therefore, is not as harmful as cigarette and cigar smoke, but the government disagrees.

Liam Donaldson, the nation's chief medical officer, said World Health Organization recommendations and other studies show water pipes have as much nicotine as cigarette smoke. He denies any discrimination, saying an across-the-board ban creates "a level playing field."

He said the law aims to lower the approximately 25 percent adult smoking rate in Britain and to protect nonsmokers from second-hand smoke.

"We are looking at the experience of California. We want to keep the subject of tobacco in the public eye so that pressure is kept up on public awareness," he said.

Actually, while cigarette smoking is prohibited in California restaurants, hookah bars are exempt and have become increasingly popular in recent years.

The British legislation also goes further than laws in some other European countries. In Belgium, for example, smoking is allowed at shisha bars, but food may not be served in the same place.

Around the corner from Khalil's cafe at the Duke of York pub, manager Nick Leith is enthusiastic about the ban and says most of his customers are, too.

"Most of the staff here are nonsmokers and we can't stand going home stinking like an ashtray. On Monday, we had a team in and they scrubbed the place from top to bottom. We're getting more families and American tourists and we think we'll sell more food," Leith said.

As Leith spoke and the Wimbledon tennis tournament aired on a flat-screen television behind him, one man eating a salad and two beer-sipping customers nodded in agreement. "It's a little early to tell, but sales this week are about the same as other weeks."

Back on Edgeware road commercial district, Lebanese music bounced off the mother-of-pearl inlaid tables at Fatma Hassan's empty Miramar restaurant, and the scent of shawarma wafted out the door. Many cafes like hers still offer their customers pipes at sidewalk tables, where it is permitted by law, but the worst summer weather in decades has compounded their troubles.

"Our luck, the weather is really cold and rainy and people can't sit outside," said Fatma Hassan, manager of the Miramar restaurant. "If it's like this now, what about in winter? I don't know where we're going to find money to pay the rent."

Summer is usually high season on Edgeware Road, when well-to-do tourists head north from the Gulf States and other countries to seek refuge from the heat in London's high-end department stores and outdoor cafes. Restaurants on the road cater to them with halal meat and honey-soaked desserts, and refrain from selling alcoholic beverages to avoid offending the heavily Muslim clientele.

Women in black hijab or brightly colored frocks and head scarves meander up and down the road, children and shopping bags in tow. Men and women stop in the exchange houses and Islamic Bank of Britain before meeting up in the cafes, where they customarily lay packs of cigarettes on the table next to their cell phones and thick coffees.

Middle Easterners are heavy cigarette smokers and they also enjoy the apple or mango-scented tobacco in a shisha for $12 to $20, the restaurateurs said.

"People want lunch or dinner and then they want coffee and they don't feel the taste of the coffee without a smoke," said Samar Eid of the family-owned Al Dar restaurant. "Now they would prefer to have food at home, where they can sm

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