Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 19:51 pm (KSA) 16:51 pm (GMT)

French "shisha bars" fear new smoking ban

Smoking shisha is a popular Middle Eastern past-time (File)
Smoking shisha is a popular Middle Eastern past-time (File)

France's "shisha bars", a central feature of Arabian-immigrant life, have joined forces with traditional French cafes selling tobacco in a fight for survival in the face of a new anti-smoking law.

Unless the government relents, the smoking ban will spell the end of these exotic tea rooms, where customers puff apple or honey-scented tobacco from waterpipes, known in Arabic as shisha.

In the Touareg cafe, lying among hostess bars and theatres near the Pigalle area of northern Paris, a sweet-smelling haze fills the dimly lit space as the soft murmur of conversation blurs into an Arabic pop song playing in the background.

Customers recline on low couches, chatting, sipping sweet mint tea and taking occasional puffs from shishas on the tables in front of them.

"We're counting the days," said proprietor Hakim Lechkhab, as the January 1 deadline looms for the ban come into force.

Similar restrictions have been introduced in other European countries, including England which imposed a ban earlier this year, including on Edgware Road, a popular piece of Arabia in central London lined with multiple shisha cafes.

In France, the threat of the ban has forged an alliance between shisha room operators and owners of traditional French "bar tabacs" against the government, which takes 64 percent of the price of a packet of cigarettes in tax.

Shishas, also known as hookahs or "arguiles", were originally brought over by immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.

Tea rooms offering them are firmly established in France, accounting for an estimated 800 of about 46,000 cafes, bars and brasseries in the country, according to industry body UMIH.

"It's a social thing"

Once mainly patronized by nostalgic older immigrants, shisha bars are increasingly popular among younger people who want an alternative to bars that serve alcohol.

"There's an atmosphere that you don't get at home," said Adnene Daabak, sharing a pipe with a friend as a video of a football match played in the background.

"It's a social thing, you come with your friends, it's clean, there's no trouble like in some other places. And not everyone can have friends round to their own homes."

The bars range from chic lounges with thumping disco music in trendy districts such as Bastille, to more casual places like the Touareg, or simple siderooms in modest kebab shops.

Although they are often classified as "salons de the" (tea rooms) and most also serve small snacks, few believe shisha bars could survive by selling tea and cakes alone.

"You can come here without smoking, that's not really the point," said Daabak's friend, Lucas Hurnaum. "Often you have groups of four or five and some of them won't smoke. But even the ones who don't smoke wouldn't come if you couldn't do it."

"It's a bit paradoxical but they wouldn't just come to drink tea," he said.

Medical experts say shishas, which use a burning piece of charcoal to toast scented tobacco and then bubble the smoke through water, can have a more concentrated and harmful effect than other forms of smoking.

According to the World Health Organisation, a one-hour session with a waterpipe involves inhaling 100-200 times the volume of smoke from a single cigarette and poses a serious hazard to users and others exposed to the smoke.

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