Lebanese bubble with anger over hookah tax

In much of the Middle East, sharing a water pipe is often conceived as a social occasion.

Flipping the hot coals on his green hookah in a crowded Beirut cafe, Abbas Nasreddine says Lebanon’s new austerity budget has spoilt his daily treat of smoking a water pipe.

“It’s how we deflate stress,” says the 26-year-old university student, a long drag of mint-scented smoke rising overhead. “But now our tool for coping with our worries has become a worry itself,” he said, fiddling with the hookah’s long hose.

Nasreddine is among many regular smokers who are displeased with a government decision to impose a new tax on water pipes as part of a larger austerity package.

They will soon have to pay an additional 1 000 Lebanese pounds (R9.80) for every water pipe they order in a cafe or restaurant, at a time when job opportunities are scarce and the economy is in decline.

“For politicians, 1 000 LBP may be of no value,” Nasreddine says. “But, for me, 1 000 LBP has a value — I get to university for 1 000 LBP,” he adds.

Picture: iStock

After decades of civil war, corruption and political crises made Lebanon one of the world’s most indebted countries, the government adopted a new austerity budget on Monday to combat a ballooning budget deficit.

It reduced benefits and pensions in the public sector and introduced a series of tax hikes, including on personal firearm licences and permits for tinted windows.

For some, the new levy on water pipes has provoked particular ire.

Taxes should not be raised “on something most people use to just relax”, Nasreddine says. “We smoke to calm our minds because we are sick of the situation in this country.”

The World Health Organisation has warned that a full hookah is equivalent to smoking 20 to 30 cigarettes at once, and has linked the practice to lung damage and cancer.

But in much of the Middle East, sharing a water pipe — also called shisha or nargileh — is often conceived as a social occasion during which smokers spend hours in cafes chatting and passing the hose around.

Iranian men smoke hookah in tea house. Picture: iStock

‘They’re ruining us’

This is especially the case in Lebanon.

Lebanon has the highest rate of shisha smokers in the region among teenagers, according to a 2016 study in the medical journal Ethnicity & Disease, which found that roughly a third of 13 to 15-year-olds it surveyed had smoked at least once in the past month.

Hussam Shuman, 28, sits outside a bustling cafe in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a hookah complete with apple-flavoured tobacco burning at his side.

The young accountant says he smokes more than once a day, “out of boredom” and “mainly after work”. But now, leisure is set to become more costly.

“Let them get money from somewhere else. Why are they targeting us water pipe smokers?” he says, trying to calculate how much more he will now be spending on shisha every month. “They’re ruining us.”

Shuman and many Lebanese are disillusioned with the ruling class, whom they accuse of nepotism and graft, and the latest austerity measures have compounded this situation.

Lebanese bubble with anger over hookah tax

Lebanese people smoke waterpipes at a restaurant in the coastal city of Batroun north of Beirut.. Picture: Joseph Eid / AFP

The government has been criticised for raising prices and limiting benefits and pensions rather than fighting corruption, tax evasion and smuggling to reduce the deficit.

On a nearby table, Fayyad Mustafa shuffles a deck of playing cards, a water pipe gurgling beneath him. The 24-year-old technician says the shisha tax is not the only problem.

“We are living in a state that wants to make everything more expensive,” he says. “They started with water pipes but we don’t know what other things will become more costly later on.”

He believes that not reacting to the hookah tax would encourage the government to raise other goods.

“If we are silent when they raise the price of a water pipe, we will have to be silent when they raise the price of a loaf of bread … or a sack of potatoes.”

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