The shisha smoke is thick, almost motionless, like a dawn mist rising slowly over a swamp. This serene smoke-scape is a fragile thing, and the illusion of permanence is shattered by the energetic table staff delivering food, drinks and charcoal. The smoke swirls and dances in their wake, a visible reminder of the invisible world surrounding us.
Unlike swamp mist, this smoke is pleasantly aromatic; an airborne fruit salad with apple, grape and mint all vying for olfactory attention. This fragrant smokers’ utopia shall, for the purpose of this article, rename nameless.
Our nameless establishment, like many others, thoughtfully provides a non-smoking section. However, the absence of a significant physical barrier such “smoke-free” spaces does little to promote healthy living.
That said, the particular restaurant in question makes a decent effort for non-smoking clientele by locating its non-smoking section outside of the main restaurant. Yes – here it’s the non-smokers who are marginalised and pushed to the fringes of the establishment.
This is a less-than-perfect arrangement but far superior to the many other eateries and coffee shops that simply separate smoking and non-smoking sections with written signs. As if free-floating smoke can read. I once saw a no-smoking sign almost totally obscured by a thick cloud of smoke that had defiantly drifted into the non-smoking section. Cigar smoke too.
The debate on passive smoking has rumbled on for a long time but the direction of travel is pretty obvious as a global public-smoking ban gradually creeps into place. However, one issue that needs to be urgently addressed pertains to children accompanying their parents to smokey environments.
Few would take their 3 year-old son to a cigar bar. But children in shisha cafes and restaurants seem to be fairly acceptable, common even. Perhaps it’s the more pleasant smell of shisha smoke that lulls some of us into a false sense of complacency. Nothing that smells so good could be harmful, could it?
However, the dangers of environmental tobacco smoke for children are clear and well-publicised. The National Health Service in the UK suggests children regularly exposed to environmental tobacco smoke (sweet smelling or otherwise) are more prone to asthma, ear, nose and chest infections, do less well cognitively and are at greater risk of developing cancer and other serious illnesses as adults.
In the restaurant described in my opening paragraph several of the passive smokers were indeed children. As these little ones munched away on ketchup-drenched chicken nuggets, mum, dad, aunts, uncles and older siblings all puffed away on perfumed pipes.
One scene now indelibly etched in my mind was of a mother cradling a baby in one arm while she dexterously manoeuvred the shisha pipe with her other. Another scene was of a container of red-hot charcoal being swung precariously close to the push chair of a sleeping tot.
This brought to my mind Hogarthian scenes of chimney sweeps and gin-drinking preteen alcoholics. Surely these children passively imbibing the atmosphere of shisha-serving establishments will become the images we look back on with a sense of disbelief in years to come.
You only have to travel as far as Sharjah to escape any chance of witnessing infants being engulfed by clouds of smoke in public places. There are those who might protest such a ban as restrictive, parroting clichés such as “nanny state”. However, I really can’t hear any right-minded individual arguing that we should be permitted to expose children and infants to passive smoking, especially not at the levels likely to be found in establishments that partially or wholly specialise in serving tobacco-based products.
I’m all for adults making decisions about quality of life versus physical health. However, children need protection, and sadly in some cases this extends to protection from those individuals whose responsibility it is to protect them in the first place (parents). If an indoor restaurant serves shisha we have to ask seriously if such establishments should be permitted to admit children.