Hookahs are so hot, they're cool

Observations on smoking (1)

As the bus passed some restaurants on Edgware Road in London, a teenage boy slouching on its upper deck - not at school, and it was too sunny to be wearing a hooded top - sat upright. Pointing to a group of Arabs smoking water pipes at pavement tables, he said to his friend: "Man, we must come back to this place - hookah pipes. They're bad."

Hookah pipes are "bad". Not even the likes of Christine Hamilton and Charles Spencer being seen smoking one has reversed their rise in cool. It may be old sages who puff hookah at home in the east, but in Britain younger Arabs, joined by non-Arabs, have blown new life into the 500-year-old contraption. With smokers increasingly feeling uncomfortable lighting up in the same space as non-smokers, hookah bars offer guilt-free tobacco in rooms where everyone's at it. Also known as a shisha (North African), a narghile (Lebanese) and a hubble-bubble (Hampstead), it is considered a more laid-back, some even say healthier, experience.

Yet the government's planned smoking ban makes no such distinction. The intention is to outlaw smoking, as of 2008, in places where hot food is served. Arabs in Britain have long known this would include their post-prandial water pipes, and Edgware Road restaurateurs predict the death of their Little Beirut. People will either stay at home to smoke, and eat there, too; or private clubs, with private fees, will spring up. "This government says it wants to understand us and our community . . . but this will just drive my customers behind closed doors," said one restaurant owner. "While people smoking the same instrument in the same room may be no different from cigar clubs, our visitors aren't so rich, so we'd prefer not to become membership clubs," said another.

Why not exempt the water pipe from the smoking ban, they ask. It is, after all, building up its fair share of social capital. For one thing, a hookah is often shared by a number of people. Also, being bubbled through water makes hookah smoke less toxic - it's the white wine spritzer of the smoking world - with 1 per cent nicotine compared to the 14 per cent in cigarette smoke. ("Hocus-pocus," say the cancer specialists, who generally have little patience with the habit.) Finally, the mellow fruit flavours put in the tobacco, whose scent perfumes the street air, make those who imbibe it less aggressive.

For Arabs, the water pipe is meditation, an exercise in deep breathing, something you smoke while discussing the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill or playing a game of backgammon. In countries where a smoking ban is already in effect, there is now, according to one Arab, "nothing to do except plan your escape. Soon the only places [where] we'll be able to smoke are the countries in the Middle East from which some of us have fled."

It is something the Prime Minister would do well to take seriously. After all, he will be spending life after No 10 at an address within smelling distance of the Edgware Road.