As smoke clears, cafe owners count cost

With the nationwide outlawing of tobacco use in public places looming, traders who have gone smoke-free report a sharp decline in business.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - January 12, 2009: A man smokes a cigarette at a cafe in Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates government is in the process of implementing a smoking ban. ( Ryan Carter / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  RC008-Smoking-20100112.jpg

ABU DHABI // Some restaurant and cafe managers in the capital have given smoke-free zones a sampling and found them not to their customers' tastes. In an attempt to gauge the cost of the upcoming federal anti-smoking law, some Abu Dhabi cafes eliminated smoking and then almost immediately gave up the ban following a sharp decline in business.

"When we banned smoking here we lost around Dh1,000 (US$270) daily," said Jijo Matthew, a waiter at Dome in Al Wahda Mall. "For us waiters, it's a lot better working in a smoke-free environment. If given the choice, I would rather work in a cafe which forbids smoking." Samar Akhtar, a supervisor from Pakistan who also works at Dome, said the cafe sought permission from their corporate offices to rescind the ban because business suffered so drastically.

"We lost too many customers," she said. "If the mall management asks us again to ban smoking, we'll try to get permission from the municipality and if they don't give us a choice, we'll have to stick to the law." A national ban on smoking in public places has not yet come into force as officials consider which government bodies will be responsible for enforcing the law. It is also unclear if the law, once enacted, will affect cafes within shopping malls.

Staff at Mugg & Bean, in Abu Dhabi Mall, also tried out a no-smoking policy. "We shut down the area for a while but reopened it because business started to fall really fast," said one employee, who did not want to be named. "Providing a smoking area is part of our customer service as most of our guests are smokers, so I don't think it's a good idea to stop it. "If the Government officially asks us to stop, then we will. I don't think they will though, after seeing how it affected our business when we tried it."

At the sister branch of Mugg & Bean, in Khalidiya, smoking has been banned since the beginning of the month. "This place is quite small and the waiters were complaining from the smoke," said Jean Domingo, a 30-year-old waitress from the Philippines. "Our customers have decreased since the start of February, especially in the evening hours, because that's when the smokers used to come. I hope they get used to it and start coming back again."

Many employees are concerned about inhaling secondary smoke and welcome a ban. "It will be a lot better since I am a non-smoker even if it will lead to a decrease in the number of customers we get," said Genebel Favourite, 30, the supervisor at Cosi Cafe in Al Wahda Mall. Roely Severino, a 25-year-old Filipina waitress at Costa Cafe in the same mall, said she hated smoking and was keenly awaiting the ban.

"We still have a smoking area," she said. "For some time, we might start to lose customers but I think they will come back when they realise that this is for everybody's benefit. In fact, we have lost a few customers because of too much smoke in the cafe." Among customers, there were mixed feelings. Akram Romel, a 32-year-old investor from Egypt, said: "I do think that this law will restrict my freedom, but I also think it would be better if they just banned cigarettes in the first place.

"There's no point in selling us the cigarettes and then telling us where we should or should not smoke them." Adel Steel, a British housewife in Abu Dhabi, expressed concern as well. "It does restrict my choices," she said. "Just as non-smokers have the right for a smoke-free environment, we smokers also have the right to smoke." Some people who have children, however, worry that second-hand smoke is harming their children and were more supportive of the forthcoming ban.

"It will be a lot better, especially for my child," said Nadine Asmar, a 32-year-old teacher from Lebanon. "We should not be forced to inhale other people's smoke." T Bailey, meanwhile, a 50-year-old teacher from the United States, said the ban was confusing and he found that signs were often ignored. "All malls in the city have that huge no-smoking sign at their doors, yet you go in and everyone's smoking," he said.

"It was implemented a long time ago in Dubai because it relies on foreign tourism for its economy. They feel like applying the law will help their image internationally, whereas Abu Dhabi is always slow at implementing anything." In Europe and the United States, many businesses have reported higher sales after tobacco bans because non-smoking customers lingered longer once they were no longer assailed by smoke. * Additional reporting by Lynne al Nahhas