It would be hard to imagine the Arab world without the sheesha. Not only has the water pipe been a fixture of local café culture for centuries, but smoking is ubiquitous in a way most Westerners would only recognise from old movies. Yet that way of life could be about to go up in smoke, as Bahrain has joined the league of anti-tobacco nations, introducing new laws that will see people fined for smoking in restaurants and even in a private car if there are children present.
The sweeping new legislation bans smoking in all indoor public places, including hotels, shopping malls, on public transport and even ATM booths. However, it is unclear whether smoking in the outside spaces of cafés and restaurants, or public parks, will also be restricted. Establishments face fines or could even be closed down for flouting the law.
Bahrain is the latest Gulf state to wage war against tobacco, joining its neighbour the United Arab Emirates, which has also introduced tough anti-smoking laws. In the past decade numerous countries, from Brazil to India, have banned smoking in indoor public spaces. Even Turkey, the spiritual home of the water pipe and purveyor of the finest tobacco known to connoisseurs, has implemented a ban.
The health benefits could be considerable. A study of hospitals in Scotland comparing the 10-month periods before and after the introduction of a smoking ban in March 2006 found a 17 per cent drop in admissions of people with heart attacks and angina. With coronary problems now one of the leading causes of deaths in Bahrain, the government hopes it can reduce fatalities sharply.
Despite proposed fines of BD20-50, implementing the ban may prove difficult. A group of young smokers puffing outside Seef Mall on a Saturday afternoon, for example, seemed confused about the new rules. ‘Does this mean we can’t smoke now, if I am talking to you?’ asks Khaled, 22. ‘What about if I am sitting outside a café? If it has a covering, does that mean we are inside?’
In fact, very few places ban smoking outdoors in public. Several cities in the US – most notably in California – have confined smokers to their back yards. Otherwise the only places where you can’t light up within sniffing distance of another person are Queensland, Australia, and Saskatchewan in Canada. It is unlikely that relaxed Bahrain would go to such extremes.
Yet there is a Pandora’s Box of health issues that has been opened. Diseases of affluence such as diabetes are of huge concern for Gulf states, with obesity their primary cause. If cigarette advertising is to be outlawed, why not billboards advertising fast food restaurants and mega-meals?
As health officials ponder these questions, Bahraini smokers will be deciding whether it’s best to just give up altogether. Unlike Europe, where retailers reported a surge in sales of snuff, chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes following bans, all forms of tobacco are included in the Bahraini ban – as well as the molasses-enriched tobacco used by water pipes. Like cigarette holders and Meerschaum pipes, the sheeshas of today seem destined to be the collectors’ items of tomorrow.
What the law prohibits
• The advertising and active promotion of cigarettes.
• Planting and manufacturing tobacco in Bahrain.
• Cigarette vending machines.
• Tobacco to be sold to anyone under the age of 18.
• The importing of chewable-based tobacco products.
• Smoking at closed public places, including airports, hotels, supermarkets and schools.
• ‘No smoking’ signs must be displayed prominently where there is a ban.