Hookahs stashed in a back room in a coffee shop in Amman. Credit: Elizabeth Whitman

The Death of Argileh in Jordan?


Words: Elizabeth Whitman

Well, not quite. You can smoke as you please inside your own home. But if the Jordanian Ministry of Health and Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) press forward as promised and ban smoking in public spaces, the days of inhaling your double-apple hubbly-bubbly in coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants could be numbered.

Cafe owners are unhappy, to put it lightly, with this decision. Others are annoyed with the law for limiting smokers’ personal freedom to light up anytime, anywhere. But government officials, doctors, anti-tobacco activists, and everyday Jordanians say it’s high time Jordan clean up its public areas, give  non-smokers actual rights, and crack down on its smoking epidemic before the health care costs of treating diseases linked to smoking skyrocket any higher.

Of course, whether there should be a debate at all is another question, one that’s rarely asked. A public health law passed in 2008 and subsequent related directives forbade smoking in public places, including restaurants. Since then, the law has been implemented a bit at a time, even as it is routinely disobeyed–walk into any government building, ride a public bus, or wander through one of Amman’s many malls, and you will find people lighting up. As Amman mayor Aqel Biltaji pointed out at the end of January in a lively debate organized by Diwanieh, the law is the law, and he is merely doing his job by enforcing it.

The money factor

The most widely used anti-argileh-ban argument by those involved in the tobacco or hospitality industry, as well as some members of the public, is that the decision will negatively affect Jordan’s economy. But according to the World Health Organization, which has reviewed various studies on the economic impact of banning smoking in public, the idea that a ban will hurt the economy is a fallacy.

The review pointed out that instead, allowing smoking actually “adds considerable costs for businesses,” mainly through lost productivity but also through direct added financial costs, such as extra cleaning and health insurance. It counteracted concerns about lost profits by adding that “any revenues lost from changes in smokers’ patronage will be offset by greater revenues from nonsmokers” flocking to new smoke-free businesses.

But can that shift hold true for businesses where their entire business revolves around smoking? In Amman, some coffee shops primarily serve argileh, with a reduced menu of drinks.  Though the economy on a macro level may not be damaged, try telling a cafe owner who has invested tens of thousands of dinars in an argileh cafe that he will need to draw up a new business plan.

On the flip side, official statistics say 55 percent of adult males in Jordan smoke, but walk outside anywhere in Jordan and you’ll have reason to believe the actual numbers are much higher. Given the fact that smoking is a leading cause of illnesses like heart disease and cancer, Jordan is facing a wave of such cases in ten to 15 years, an extremely expensive wave given that Jordan currently spends 1.3 billion dinars annually on non-communicable diseases. Can Jordan afford not to implement a ban on smoking, which in other countries has been proven to help people quit?

A gradual process

One of the major complaints voiced during the debate by opponents of banning argileh, particularly cafe owners, was that the decision came as a surprise, without enough warning for cafe managers and owners to prepare. The Jordan Restaurant Association, which represents over 800 restaurants and cafes, has said the same.

Yet the first time the Health Ministry tried to ban smoking in restaurants was five years ago, in 2009. Back then, the JRA called for an postponement of the health law until the end of that year, and Essam Fakhreldin, then the JRA deputy president, told the Jordan Times, “We need to move step-by-step to be able to ban smoking in restaurants, and I think it needs years, not months, to enforce the ban.” This statement from five years ago undermines the claim, at least from the JRA, that the decision was too abrupt and that implementation should be gradual.

GAM is to implement the law is by not renewing or issuing licenses for restaurants to serve argileh. Since these licenses expire for all venues on March 31, April 1 is the expected day for the ban to begin, but it’s not clear if that will actually happen. The JRA says it has held discussions with the Ministry of Health to devise an exception to the law for argileh cafes, while a parliamentary committee is supposedly working on the same issue.

What do you think? Should smoking be banned in public places in Jordan? Should an exception be made for argileh? Please take our poll and weigh in in the comments section below.

*This article is cross-posted on the author’s blog, elizabethwhitman.wordpress.com.


Elizabeth Whitman is a freelance journalist based in Amman. She covers Syrian refugees and women's rights, among other issues, and has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera English, and other publications. She is also the editor of Luxury magazine in Jordan.

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