Last Updated: Wed Oct 17, 2012 09:24 am (KSA) 06:24 am (GMT)

Extending the license to kill

Tarik Al Maeena

When the Jeddah Municipality recently began enforcing a Ministry of Interior directive to ban smoking in public places including cafes and restaurants, many non-smokers heaved a sigh of relief. Not so with many tobacco importers and traders. They wanted an extension of three more years before the ban is implemented.

The first question that comes to mind is why three years? Why not one or five? Is it because in three years the legions of those becoming addicted to nicotine will increase, thereby increasing consumption of tobacco and the size of the wallets of those engaged in selling it? How many more new recruits would be drawn to this addictive habit? Or are they protesting because their investment in the promotion and sales of tobacco products is bound to take a hit?

To such businessmen I can only say tough luck! The ban has been floating on the books for some two years now and they should have understood that the axe would fall someday. Traders and importers of goods that add to public misery through health related issues must understand that there comes a time when the public welfare takes precedence over profit.

It is not only traders and importers who are up in arms. Smoking has become a social disease and more so in Jeddah than in the rest of the Kingdom. The proliferation of cafes and restaurants geared up to serve Shisha at the expense of good food has led many to invest heavily in such outlets. Now they too suddenly find themselves without their main draw, the smoky water pipe.

They too are calling for a repeal or stay of the ban as they would stand to lose their investments. Some have even flaunted a report with unverified sources which states that more than 3,500 restaurants and cafes in Jeddah would go out of business due to the ban, with an estimated loss of some SR150 million. Owners and investors in such establishments have met at the Chamber of Commerce to air their grievance.

Yet what are they grieving for? That they are allowed to serve and sell tobacco related products to the public, many of whom are barely beyond puberty and have yet to develop all their common senses? If one is to seek the social good then one must ask, what is the social benefit of any extension of the smoking ban other than to make these restaurant and cafe owners rich? If such businessmen can provide a worthwhile answer, I would like to be the first to hear it.

As an ex-smoker for many decades, I am alarmed today at the widespread habit among our youth. It has been discreetly promoted at restaurants and cafes serving Shisha, and more often than not those managing such establishments are not very selective when it comes to whom they serve it to. On many occasions I have witnessed 12 and 13 year olds calming puffing away on a water pipe in the dark corners of these cafes, while cafe waiters scurry around to keep the coals burning.

Other owners in the pursuit of financial gains have turned what were once fine eateries into smokers’ dens. I know of several such places that were once a good place for a meal which were soon transformed into a cloudy maze of carbon monoxide and other toxic chemicals cleverly concealed in the fragrance of fruits.

There will be those that call for their rights. They will argue that Jeddah is different, that a non-smoking culture is alien to us, that there are few places where one can go to relax, and so on.

I agree to the part about their rights. They have the freedom to choose what they put into their bodies. But not in the presence of others who may be harmed by their secondary smoke. As to the rest of their arguments, I say balderdash! Jeddah is no different than the rest of the Kingdom, and we do not have such a vile culture. This phenomenon has developed in recent years into a substantial social ill that must be stopped at any cost.

To those who argue that they would be denied places to go out to relax, I can only provide recent examples such as in the U.K. when smoking was banned in pubs and pub owners feared the worst. There was a slight drop of customers in the beginning but it all went back to normal soon afterwards and without the smoke. When smoking was banned on aircrafts, did that stop people from flying?

Let restaurants and cafes go back to their original mission of providing appetizing food and drink rather than disguising currently substandard fare and service in a cloud of smoke. The good ones will continue to prosper without the fumes.

We do not need to delay the ban on smoking. That would only provide those that trade in such products a renewal of their license to kill through further addiction of our young. The cost of a human life is certainly worth more than all anticipated losses.

(This article was published in the Saudi Gazette online on Oct. 17, 2012.)

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