DAMASCUS: Damascus’s oldest cafe, the Havana, used to be packed with customers whiling away the hours sipping coffee and puffing on a water pipe, but today it is three-quarters empty.
Like so many other places in the world, Syria has been hit by a ban on smoking in public places.
Smoking nargiles, or water pipes, in the country’s ubiquitous coffee-houses is a firmly established tradition in Syria, as in most of the Middle East.
"It helps me to relax and makes me happy," says Nayla, 30, who often goes out with her friends for a nargile.
Syrians are heavy smokers of nargiles and cigarettes, with official figures showing 60 percent of men and 23 percent of men indulging in the habit, for which they collectively spend about $600 million (€448 million) a year.
A packet of cigarettes here costs 50 to 80 Syrian pounds ($1.10 to $1.60 /82 euro cents to €1.19) and the average smoker spends eight percent of his annual salary on tobacco, says Societe Generale Pour le Tabac, the state-owned tobacco entity.
Several cigarette factories have opened in Syria in recent years, including one in the northwestern city of Lattakia in 2007 that is owned by Altadis, a unit of Britain’s Imperial Tobacco Group.
In the Al-Rawda cafe, another popular hangout for Damascenes, the outdoor smoking section is packed and the sweet smell of nargile tobacco smoke fills the air.
Abdel-Karim, 40, smokes two and a half packets of cigarettes a day and resents the law that came into force on April 21, which he calls "unjust."
"It doesn’t take into account the fact that more than half of Syrians are smokers. A smoker should be allowed to smoke in public places," he says.
The government had already passed a law banning tobacco advertising, its sale to under-19s and smoking on public transport and in certain public places, but that law was enforced only very half-heartedly.
Samir, 25, drives a taxi from six in the morning until four in the afternoon.
"I can’t not smoke for all that time, especially with the congestion in Damascus," he says, drawing nervously on a cigarette, despite the risk of incurring a $55 (€41) fine.
"If a policeman catches me, I’ll run away. I’ll leave my car and run."
If they want people to stop smoking, "they should close the cigarette factories," Samir adds.
The new law, which was passed six months ago, bans the smoking and sale of tobacco in any form in cafes, restaurants and nightclubs, as well as schools, universities, hospitals, public transport, cinemas, theatres and museums.
Offenders face a fine of between $45 and $870 (€34-€650) and potentially up to two years in prison.
But the law does allow some public places to create smoking areas.
"We are waiting for a visit from a committee that should tell us where we can have a smoking zone," says a member of staff at the Havana.