x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UAE mall smoking ban lights up confusion

Outlets that are complying with the smoking ban find they are losing business to those who are ignoring it.

Despite an impending smoking ban and the restaurant being recently fined for the smokers, people continue to smoke inside the Mug&Bean Cafe at the Mushrif Mall in Abu Dhabi.
Despite an impending smoking ban and the restaurant being recently fined for the smokers, people continue to smoke inside the Mug&Bean Cafe at the Mushrif Mall in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // It is 4.30pm on a Thursday and the staff of Galler Chocolate in Marina Mall stare out on to an empty floor.

The cafe has been enforcing a smoking ban for a week after receiving a verbal warning from Abu Dhabi Municipality, and the pall of cigarette smoke that once drifted over the tables like a toxic cloud has gone. So have all the customers.

A few steps away, clouds of smoke billow through La Brioche cafe, its patrons cheerfully puffing away. The owners had a warning letter but still let customers smoke, says the manager, Nishra Yasin.

Of more than 80 cafes and restaurants (not including food courts) at the five biggest shopping centres in the capital, almost half were still allowing patrons to smoke last week, despite warnings from the municipality that if they did so after June 1 they would be fined.

Only two of the 38 that continue to allow smoking have been fined. Both still permit their customers to smoke.

Of the other 36, about half say they have received no notification of a smoking ban. Those who have been informed about the ban have been told it comes into effect today.

If the ban is to be supported by the businesses it will affect, it must be followed by everyone, said one waiter at Galler.

"All the people came here but now we are almost empty. We are losing business," he said.

"La Brioche got a letter but they didn't stop. Our customers ask us, 'Why have you stopped?' and I have to tell them it is because we are following the rules."

La Brioche halved the size of its smoking section but was allowing the habit as recently as last week.

Abu Dhabi Municipality said initially it would fine offenders from the start of last month. Later it said it was not responsible for enforcing the ban, and this was the responsibility of the Department of Economic Development.

But a member of staff at the department said no one there was involved, and directed all inquiries to the municipality. Neither party was available for further comment.

In Abu Dhabi Mall, where half the 14 cafes and restaurants still allow smoking, businesses are confused and worried about the ban, one cafe owner said.

"I don't know what's happening. The municipality sent warnings last year, but since then, nothing."

He said he recognised smoking and second-hand smoke were unhealthy, but the financial repercussions of banning smoking would be huge.

"Always, I am against saying no to a ban," he said, although a temporary ban in Abu Dhabi Mall last year cost his cafe Dh1.2 million in lost profits.

The cafe is filled with smokers, many of whom are regulars, which means the owner has been left with a dilemma. "I don't want to go against the law, but at the same time I don't want to lose money or jobs. The authorities, they don't negotiate."

And for the two establishments that have been fined, the threat of further penalty has had little effect.

On June 15, despite being fined Dh3,000 on the spot for allowing smokers, Cafe Noir in Mushrif Mall continued to operate as normal.

"I spoke to our HR and they said they are going to talk to the mall management," said one supervisor.

The cafe has had difficulties with smoking before. The Ministry of Health refused to renew its smoking permit because it was near a children's arcade.

"They took pictures and they gave us the fine," the supervisor said. "As for the next fine, I don't know. Maybe it will be today or tomorrow that they will come back."

The mall has been in touch with the municipality to clarify the situation but is still waiting for a response, according to Aravind Ravi, a marketing executive for the mall.

"We wrote asking for confirmation of what exactly they are trying to enforce," he said. "If such a ban is there, then we will issue a memo."

Every cafe and restaurant had received a warning, said a municipality employee. "In every mall in Abu Dhabi, they have received a notice. They might say otherwise."

An official date for the ban has not yet been decided. "Inshallah, it will be very soon," he said.