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Hookah bars see bias in smoking ban

Critics say Britain's new law disproportionately hits largely Muslim customers of cafes that offered the water pipes.

July 14, 2007|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Gone are the sweet-smelling trails of smoke that used to bubble out of the water pipes at Al Arez cafe on Edgware Road. Gone are five employees whom Mohammed Khalil sacked a day after Britain's national smoking ban went into effect this month.

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 hookahs, filled with shisha tobacco.

"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 Edgware Road Assn. and its Save Shisha Campaign, which is challenging the new law that bans smoking in all enclosed public places, whether work sites or pubs, company cars or shisha cafes. The campaign seeks 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 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 another sent 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% in the first week. They argue that secondhand shisha smoke is only about 20% tobacco and therefore not as harmful as cigarette and cigar smoke. The government disagrees.

Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer, Britain's equivalent of surgeon general, said that World Health Organization recommendations and other studies show water-pipe smoke has 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% adult smoking rate in Britain and to protect nonsmokers from secondhand 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," Donaldson said.

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

The British law also goes further than those 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. A menu on Leith's bar offered battered cod, gammon steak and cottage pie, all homemade, he said. "It's a little early to tell, but sales this week are about the same as other weeks."

Back on Edgware Road's 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 pipes at sidewalk tables, where smoking is still permitted, 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," Hassan said. "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 Edgware Road, when well-to-do tourists head north from the Persian Gulf states and other countries to seek refuge from the heat. Restaurants on the road cater to them with halal meat and honey-soaked desserts, and refrain from selling alcohol to avoid offending the heavily Muslim clientele.

Women in black hijab or bright 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 cellphones and thick coffees.

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

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