Legal delay allows shisha cafes to keep operating

A nationwide ban on shisha cafes in residential areas has not taken effect because the federal Government has yet to approve the details of how it should be enforced.

Al Hajar Coffee Shop manager Abdul Azim al Saeed enjoys his afternoon shisha as he works in the cafe on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, in Abu Dhabi.  (Silvia Razgova/The National)
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ABU DHABI // A nationwide ban on shisha cafes in residential areas has been delayed as officials wait for the federal Government to approve enforcement details.
Sheikh Khalifa, the President, signed the anti-tobacco law in January 2010. The regulations gave neighbourhood shisha cafes two years to move to more remote locations.
The ban was supposed to have taken effect last week, but smoke still wafted from numerous cafes in the capital, many on the ground floor of apartment buildings.
At issue is the bylaw prepared by the Ministry of Health, outlining particulars such as how far shisha cafes must be from residential areas, said Dr Wedad Al Maidoor, head of the ministry's tobacco control committee. Dr Al Maidoor said the bylaw must be revised or passed by the Cabinet, the council of ministers that is the federation's executive authority.
"In June, we submitted the bylaw to the council," she said. "They are supposed to look at it, approve it. Nobody called us from there. I don't know what is the status."
Cabinet officials could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs declined to comment.
Abu Dhabi is ready to enforce the law once it hears from the federal Government, said Khaleefa Al Romaithi, the municipality's public health director.
"We are waiting for the past six months," Mr Al Romaithi said. "Every month, we contact the Ministry of Health. They say, 'Very soon'."
Salah Salem, 47, an Abu Dhabi resident, said he had heard about the law but was not surprised it was taking time to enforce.
"It is not easy to implement," Mr Salem said while smoking shisha in the Sphinx Cafe, near Delma Street and Airport Road.
Mr Salem said he had visited places in Saudi Arabia where shisha cafes were clustered five to 10 kilometres out of town, but was not sure where cafes could go in Abu Dhabi.
"If we are looking at the health and environment, of course it is good to keep away the shisha," he said.
"But from the other side, it affects these people who look for life here, the employees."
Abdul Azim Al Saeed, 50, an employee at Al Hajaz Coffee in Al Ittihad, said that if the shisha cafe closed, he would move home to Egypt. He has lived in the UAE for 30 years.
Many customers come to the cafe to work, chatting about business while they smoke, he said. "Where are they going to go if they close the shisha?"
Dr Al Maidoor insisted the law would yield important health benefits. "People, unfortunately, they don't go by the health issue, they go by the traditional, the commercial," she said. "They think, this is like part of the tourism, it is something cool, and so on."
The bylaw specifies that cafes inside residential buildings must move away, that cafes in malls should be on the outskirts and that cafes in hotels should not be near swimming pools.
"They can be in the tourism and trading areas, but we cannot allow the shisha cafes in the residential areas, because in this way you cannot give or ensure 100 per cent smoke-free places," she said.
According to the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi, between 24 and 35 per cent of Abu Dhabi residents smoke. Of those, about 29 per cent smoke shisha, according to the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.
Shisha can be more harmful than cigarettes because it exposes smokers to more carbon monoxide, and, potentially, to infectious diseases, Dr Al Maidoor said.
"[The cafes] are gaining money for nothing, unfortunately, except for destroying people's health," she said.
Yacine Boumalik, 30, from Morocco, agreed with the rationale behind the law. "It's going to be healthy, honestly," said Mr Boumalik, who visits shisha cafes to chat with friends.
"It's going to help these guys quit smoking."
However, Khamis Al Dhaheri said the law could also have unintended consequences. "Everybody will shift this business to the home, and it will be affecting the families," said Mr Al Dhaheri, from Abu Dhabi, who described his age as "over 50".
Mr Al Dhaheri prohibits smoking in his home, but would consider creating a designated area for shisha if the cafes in the city closed.
Smoking shisha in Dashin Cafeteria, he estimated that there were 30 to 35 shisha cafes in the surrounding neighbourhood, near Delma Street and Muroor Road.
"If they go, that means 35 places that will be empty," he said.