London's Arab quarter waiting for disaster: new English smoking ban dawns

Shrouded in a sweet-smelling haze, clusters of men and women unwind as they inhale fragrant tobacco from water pipes in the myriad hookah cafes that line London's Arab quarter.

But Britain is going smoke free on Sunday, and cafe regulars will soon be deprived of one of their favorite pastimes. The smoking ban affects covered public places and brings the nation in line with the more than 35 other countries and territories.

"It's going to take a big part of my social life away," said 24-year-old Muslim Rizwan Hussain, drawing in grape-flavored smoke at a cafe on Edgware Road. "I don't do pubs and this was an alternative."

Experts say the bans have become an irreversible trend because of soaring health costs and public unease over passive smoking. Some of the strictest smoking bans are in the United States, even though there is no federal anti-smoking policy. New York and Florida have stringent bans, while California has certain outdoor smoking bans.

Spain, Italy, Iran, Norway, Sweden, Singapore, South Africa, Uruguay and New Zealand have legislated to restrict smoking. France banned smoking in many public places in February and plans to extend the ban to cafes and restaurants next year. Finland is imposing a ban in June 2009.

"It's a matter of time, but it will happen all around the world," said Jean King, director of tobacco control for Cancer Research UK, a leading cancer research charity. "It's the most important public health measure for a generation."

Despite the spread of bans, the World Health Organization believes sales of tobacco will be steady. In its Tobacco Atlas the WHO said that by 2030 there will be "at least another two billion smokers in the world," and an expected decrease in male smokers "will be offset by an increase in female smoking rates, especially in developing countries."

Very few public spaces have been exempted from the ban in England. Pubs, clubs and restaurants will all be smoke-free. Taxi and delivery drivers have been warned that they too face an on the spot 50 pound (US$ 100, EUR75) fine if they are caught lighting up in inside work vehicles.

Anti-smoking ads have coated bus stops and the British government has subsidized quit smoking programs. The rest of Britain - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - already has smoking bans in place.

But many who gather at the shisha or hookah cafes - which started in London in the 1970s - say they're addicted to the social aspects of a smoke, not necessarily to the tobacco itself.

Around 30,000 visitors - a mix of tourists, veiled women, young and old - come to this Middle Eastern enclave to sample grape, apple, rose and peppermint tobacco in the other-worldly atmosphere surrounded by fixtures from across the Arab world.

Britain has around 1.8 million Muslims.

"Isn't it a shame if this doesn't exist anymore," said retired lawyer Ibrahim El-Nour, raising his hands to the sky and taking a long drag of an extra-strong tobacco called saloom.

El-Nour gathered the signatures of 10,000 people in a petition urging the government to make an exception for hookah cafes. There was also a petition posted on the Internet social-networking site, Facebook.

But officials say there is no chance of a last minute reprieve.

"Creating an exemption for premises that offer shisha and hookah would not be in keeping with the primary objective of the legislation which is to reduce the risks to health of second hand smoke," said a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

Shisha will be allowed on terraces but with such little space on London's crowded sidewalks, many fear the cafes will become obsolete.

"Its bad. I think it's finished after Sunday," said Amhed Ali, a 25-year-old Iraqi Kurd waiter at the Palms Palace, speaking in halting English.

The government argues that many of the businesses will not suffer because they also serve food. But the majority of visitors come for the water pipes, said Al-Nour.

At the Palms Palace, about 60 people were crammed into the ornately carved booths with hookah pipes - none were eating.

"It's a little bit of the Middle East in London which they are totally going to destroy," said Baija Choutai, a 39-year-old businessman who has been a regular on the Edgware Road for 12 years. "Shisha bars are like a small United Nations that break down cultural barriers."

He said people from different backgrounds and nationalities come to enjoy lively discussions about the events of the day, share experiences and generally hang out in the unique setting.

The government said it will review the smoking legislation in three years, for many shisha lounges it could be too late.