It is a sight and smell that has already disappeared from most of Europe and the western world: the coil of tobacco smoke that wafts under the noses of restaurant diners, pollutes an afternoon coffee or pervades a shopping expedition. Now, as the UAE prepares to stub out its cigarettes and douse its shisha pipes, one question remains. How easy will it be for the nation to give up its nicotine habit?
Anger, pleasure and disbelief were some of the reactions to the proposal by the Federal National Council last week for smoking restrictions that will cover most indoor public spaces and even private cars that carry children as passengers. For some, the proposed law means a chance to breathe clean air for the first time. Others fear everything from an infringement of their personal liberties to falling profit margins, not to mention the horrors of withdrawal.
On the surface, no one has more to fear than cafe owners. Should the Government go through with its proposal to ratchet up the price of cigarettes, clamp down on advertising and restrict the places where people can smoke cigarettes, cigars or shisha, businesses will most certainly suffer, they say. "This will affect our business," said Tariq Chaudhry, the manager at Abu Dhabi Mall's Cafe Moka. "Most people want to smoke after coffee. In fact, some customers don't come here to eat or have coffee, they come here for a cigarette mainly."
His restaurant would be affected as the law proposes to ban smoking in public places. But that might only be a short-term effect. In Europe and the US, many businesses ended up reporting higher sales after tobacco bans because non-smoking customers lingered longer once their nostrils and lungs were no longer being assailed by smoke. Mr Chaudhry hopes this will be the case here and that business will soon pick up in restaurants as customers get used to the new rules.
"The idea is good,'' he said. "I don't want any cigarettes in my shop. If there is no smoking, people will eventually not feel the need to smoke. It is not good for the staff who inhale second-hand smoke. The Government should totally stop importing cigarettes altogether." A customer at the restaurant also welcomed the move, saying it would encourage him to quit. "I smoke a pack and a half of cigarettes each day," said Mike Windsor. "I want to stop as there are too many problems for my health. If the cigarettes go up in price as much as they say, I would most definitely stop. I want to stop at Dh7, never mind almost Dh50."
In the UAE a packet costs about Dh7 (US$1.90), compared with Dh32 (£6) in Britain and Dh25 in the US. Under the proposed law, people who smoke in places where doing so is prohibited could be fined Dh500. Moises Bernardo, the supervisor at Abu Dhabi Mall's Alfredo Cafe, struck a positive tone, noting that coffee shops would at least be struggling together. "It would be the same for everyone,'' he said, "but people would get used to smoking in other places. I think it would become busy again, though, when people use the cafe to drink coffee, and outside somewhere else to smoke cigarettes."
Mary-Anna, who works for a fashion retailer, said that although she smoked only socially, she was angry to learn that the price for her occasional habit could increase so dramatically. "It's a bad idea, it's restricting because of the money," she said. "I can't afford to buy at this price." Some elements of the broad plan were universally welcomed, however, such as banning smoking in a car with passengers who are under 12 years old. The crackdown on underage smokers was also accepted by all.
But, in the shisha cafes, few were pleased to hear that the habit could come under scrutiny. Cafes in residential buildings or in residential areas would not be allowed to serve cigarettes or shisha under the law. Sayed Ibrahim, the Egyptian manager of Al Hejaz cafe in the Muroor area, said there were more than 1,000 shisha cafes in the capital, most located in residential areas. "I actually don't think it will ever happen," he said of the proposed smoking ban. "Of course it would damage business. Our rent is very high and our shisha only costs up to Dh15."
His opening hours are from 6am until 2am, and customers often come alone, three times a day, and play video games while smoking the pipe. "Yes it is bad for your health, but there are so many cafes that it just won't happen,'' he said. "Almost all shisha cafes are in a residential area, and we can't transfer out of the capital." He estimated that 90 per cent of men in Abu Dhabi, especially those of Egyptian and Syrian descent, spend a significant amount of their time in shisha cafes.
Khaldoon Faisal, from Jordan, was enjoying a shisha session at the cafe and said he also smoked cigarettes. "Money is nothing in the UAE if they increase the price," he said. "Maybe elsewhere it would affect sales but not here. The law is good for kids though who should not be smoking, and maybe the Government should introduce some laws for drivers who smoke. They can't stop smoking in public places totally."
Yousef al Shamsi, a UAE national, said he would be at a loss if he did not smoke shisha. "If they stop shisha, where can we go?'' he asked. "We don't want that, we don't support that. They say they are trying to look after our health, but it doesn't affect me. I still work out. I come here with my friends, I enjoy it. I don't like doing other things, like going to nightclubs." Feras Nabeel, a boxer, said smoking less shisha might encourage youths to take up more fulfilling activities.
"It will help them to do something useful, like volunteering,'' he said. "No one really thinks about that. I mean, it is bad for your health and personally I hope the Government does something to ease the usage of shisha. I would be able to breathe easier and work out more. It also affects your mind; you become jittery." @Email:email@example.com