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MENAFN - Arab News - 22/10/2012

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(MENAFN - Arab News) If you are living in Jeddah these days, then you must have heard about the cigarette and shisha (hookah) smoking ban in the city, and I am sure your reaction came under one of two categories: either jumping for joy or downhearted.

The instrument, that many believe originated from India, is a close friend to many people in Jeddah. Since the olden days of the Omdah, the mayor and his nightly gatherings with the inhabitants of the neighborhood, till the advent of modern cafes and restaurants where families and friends could gather to relax and let off steam. The Shisha was there; as a witness on how life is changing in the city.

You could hate it, and the smoke it produces, to the point of disgust, or you could cherish its fragrance as a symbol of relaxation, usually accompanied by a glass of tea or a cup of coffee, while spending quality time with family and friends in nice surroundings. In both cases you are aware of its negative impact on your health, and those around you. On this particular point the decision for the ban has been formed: To provide a healthy, smoke-free environment for those looking for spending leisure time in the city's many cafes and restaurants. On this line of thought, arguments in favor of the ban are hard to dismiss. However, a friend and I were discussing this when she raised an important point, "what about Jeddah's desalination towers? Their smoke emission should be banned too! "If they want to prevent cancer and protect our children, they need to relocate these plants away from the crowded areas of the city," she continued. "When you go to a shisha cafe, you are aware that you are going to be subjected to second hand smoking, but you cannot prevent yourself or your child from inhaling the pollution coming out straight from those towers."

In my opinion, this is a very legitimate observation. Having said that, there is another factor that the ban seems to totally dismiss and that is the cultural impact on people's social life. Some would say that meeting friends over shisha outside the house is better than staying in and smoking in front of children.

Others would argue that shisha cafes in Jeddah are considered as one of the few social venues available in the city for recreation. And there are those who will go to the extreme and say that it is a change to one of the city's cultural norms. Imagine Cairo without its old fashioned cafes, Beirut without its Solidere, Dubai without its gigantic shopping malls, and Jeddah with its shisha serving cafes is no different, they would argue. Incidentally, Dubai had banned smoking indoors for a few years now, and apparently cafes and restaurants in Beirut are now starting to ban indoor smoking as well.

In addition, cafe and restaurant owners seem to be have been taken by surprise. Not that the ban is new, it has been lurking for few years now, but they were taken aback by the swiftness in which the ban is being strictly enforced. Some owners reportedly claim that 80 percent of their profits are from shisha services. Totally banning it would force a lot of them to close, lay off staff, and in some cases, prosecuted if their businesses are indebted to banks.

Now, although that I am not a shisha smoker and I do not advocate smoking, I find myself sympathizing with these cultural aspects of the argument. And I believe that an easy way out of such a heated situation is possible. Smoking in closed places should be banned, while permitting it in open spaces. It is a free choice after all, and that is what is practically happening everywhere else in the world.


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