Up in smoke: Coronavirus pandemic no match for Lebanon’s hookah lovers

Lebanon’s hookah fans are returning to bars and restaurants amid warnings that the smoky pastime carries even greater health risks because of the coronavirus. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 June 2020

Up in smoke: Coronavirus pandemic no match for Lebanon’s hookah lovers

  • ‘Hookah alone is totally damaging to the health, and its damage is much higher now with the spread of the new coronavirus’
  • Smoking costs the Lebanese state $53 million a year

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s hookah fans are returning to bars and restaurants amid warnings that the smoky pastime carries even greater health risks because of the coronavirus.
A few days ago Tourism Minister Ramzi Msharrafieh allowed restaurants and coffee shops to serve hookah, although some cafes had started offering it weeks earlier to attract customers.
“Hookah alone is totally damaging to the health, and its damage is much higher now with the spread of the new coronavirus,” chest and emergency specialist Dr. Wael Jaroush told Arab News. He was irritated by restaurant owners who claimed they were protecting their customers’ health by throwing away leftovers but at the same time also offered them hookah. “As if smoking hookah alone does not pose a threat to people’s health,” Jaroush added. “The latest statistics in Lebanon have shown that 33 percent of girls between the ages of 16 and 18, and 42 percent of young boys of the same age range smoke hookah and this is a real disaster.”
Tony Ramy, who is president of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafés, Night-Clubs & Pastries, said that a quarter of people went to restaurants and cafes to smoke hookah.
“Nothing can save restaurants and cafes from their financial crisis, but hookah will restore a certain atmosphere to restaurants that will procure added value for Lebanese cuisine,” he told Arab News, referring to the months of economic turmoil and hardships the country has endured.
He said there were 2,500 cafes in Lebanon and that allowing them to serve hookah again might boost their business.
Msharrafieh, who is himself a doctor, stipulated that hookah must be served outdoors and warned people about the health risks of smoking and the damage it had on the respiratory system. 
There are also conditions for pandemic-friendly hookah practices: Sterilizing the hookah, not using it twice during the day, checking the temperature of each employee serving the hookah on a regular basis, changing the water inside the hookah bottle before and after each use, using a disposable smoking tube, and maintaining the appropriate distance between the tables.
But the minister’s decision angered universities, unions, and societies.
Dr. Charaf Abou Charaf, president of the Lebanese Order of Physicians, criticized Msharrafieh and insisted on implementing a law that forbids smoking in public places in Lebanon, whether outdoors or indoors, saying it had been neglected after it being implemented for a short period.
“Smoking, of all kinds, increases the risk of contracting the new coronavirus, especially when smoking hookah as it entails repeated touching of the face with one’s hands, by partaking one hookah by many smokers, and by neglecting social distancing, which increases the chances of transmitting the disease,” he told Arab News.
Hookah extended the lifetime of microorganisms in it no matter how much it was cleaned and sterilized, he added, and smoking one hookah was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes.
“Smoking increases the risk of complications when a smoker contracts the new coronavirus, (they) are higher than the case of a non-smoker,” he said. “Smokers infected with the disease are three times higher than the number of non-smokers. Smokers have higher risks of death or needing breathing apparatus than non-smokers. And there are 40 percent of recorded infection cases in Lebanon who are smokers.”
He said that smoking cost the state $53 million a year and called on the government not to waste what had been accomplished in the fight against the coronavirus. Smoking would, he said, get Lebanon “back to square one” for the sake of “weak economic reasons, and for the benefit of a few at the expense of the Lebanese majority.”
He also urged the government to take advantage of the current situation and to rid Lebanon “once and for all of the hookah pandemic.” 
It was no less dangerous than the coronavirus and the country’s health system was going through a perilous stage, he warned. “Our hospitals are suffering from severe shortages, and it is not acceptable to allow a resurgence of the health problem.”
Concerns about the reemergence of hookah come as the country returns to normality, and there are signs that people are ignoring preventive measures. 
Curfews have ended, traffic jams are at pre-lockdown level and people can be seen crowding in front of shops, banks, cafes, nurseries, and electronic game stores, which have all opened to receive customers even though the Ministry of Interior has not sanctioned this.
People are also going without face coverings, unless being instructed to wear them by private security staff at malls and businesses.
Lebanon’s confirmed number of coronavirus cases has exceeded 1,500, and the first case was recorded on Feb. 21.


Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

Updated 27 min 45 sec ago

Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

  • Majority of respondents to Arab News/YouGov survey consider neither candidate good for region
  • Findings show strong Arab support for Trump on Iran but not on Jerusalem embassy move

RIYADH: Nearly half the respondents in an Arab News/YouGov poll conducted in 18 Middle East and Africa (MENA) countries believe neither candidate in the upcoming US elections will necessarily be good for the region.
Of the rest, 40 percent said Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden would be better for the region while 12 percent said the same thing about incumbent President Donald Trump. But a key takeaway of the poll is that if Biden, who served as vice president to Barack Obama until 2017, wins the White House race, he would be well advised to shed the Obama administration baggage.
When asked about policies implemented in the Middle East under the Obama administration, the most popular response (53 percent) was that the Democratic president left the region worse off, with another 58 percent saying Biden should distance himself from Obama-era policies.
The study surveyed a sample of 3,097 respondents online to find out how people in the MENA region feel about the Nov. 3 US elections.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Containing Iran was found to be one of the top four issues that respondents wanted the next US president to focus on. Strong support for Trump both maintaining a war posture against Iran and imposing strict sanctions against the Tehran regime was noticed in Iraq (53 percent), Lebanon (38 percent) and Yemen (54 percent), three countries that have had intimate regional dealings with Iran.
President Trump’s 2017 decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem proved overwhelmingly unpopular, with 89 percent of Arabs opposing it. Surprisingly, in contrast to most other Arabs, Palestinian respondents inside the Palestinian Territories indicated a greater desire for the US to play a bigger role in mediation with Israel.
Arab opinion was largely split on the elimination this year of Iran’s regional “satrap” Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with the single largest proportion of respondents from Iraq (57 percent) and Lebanon (41 percent) seeing it as a positive move, as opposed to those in Syria and Qatar, where most respondents — respectively 57 percent and 62 percent — saw it as negative for the region.

Iran also figured in the list of perceived threats to US interests, although well behind white nationalism (32 percent) and China (22 percent). The other critical challenges for the US as viewed by Arabs were cybercrime, radical Islamic terrorism and climate change.
For a country that touts itself as an ally of the US, public attitudes in Qatar were found to be surprisingly out of sync with US objectives in the Middle East. The perception of radical Islamic terrorism, Iran and Islamist parties as the “three biggest threats facing the region” was much softer in Qatar compared with the region as a whole.
It came as little surprise that three quarters of respondents want the next US administration to make it easier for people from Arab countries to travel to the US. The figure for Lebanon, for instance, was even higher, 79 percent, underscoring concerns that many young Arabs are actively trying to leave the region.
Among other findings, Arabs remain overwhelmingly concerned about such challenges as failed government (66 percent) and the economic slowdown (43 percent).
Close to half of the respondents (44 percent) would like to see the next US president focus on empowering young people in the Arab region and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict (44 percent), followed by containing COVID-19 (37 percent), reining in Iran and Hezbollah (24 percent), quashing radical Islamic terrorism (24 percent) and tackling climate change (17 percent).