“Shisha-abana,” exclaims Bilal, a grocer in Mali’s capital, Bamako, in the local language, Bambara: “Shisha is ready.”
Its a general reaction.
An unexpected ban on hookah smoking in this West African country has caused both surprise and division, dismaying supporters but delighting health advocates.
Bars, where small groups of smokers – mainly young men – hang out to chat and smoke hookahs have thrived in Bamako in recent years.
Mali is a predominantly Muslim country and interpretations of Islam are generally unfavorable to cigarettes and hookahs.
But it’s also a secular nation that tolerates alcohol, although consumption is restricted to certain public places and most shops and restaurants don’t serve it.
Hookahs or hookahs typically burn a fruit-flavored tobacco to provide a sweet taste. The smoke is inhaled through a long rubber hose and passed through water to cool it down. “Shisha” is also the term sometimes used for the tobacco product.
The government’s sudden decision on August 15 to ban hookahs took many by surprise — the ruling junta, in power since 2020, wasn’t particularly known for its concerns about tobacco.
The law, jointly signed by six ministries, including the Ministry of Security, Health and Youth, “prohibits the importation, distribution, sale and use of shisha (water pipes) or similar devices throughout the national territory”.
Any hookah smoker is punishable by one to 10 days in prison and a fine of 300 to 10,000 CFA francs ($0.45 to $15).
Hookah bars have six months to close.
The authorities did not give a reason for the ban.
But in his shop in central Bamako, Abdramane Daff seeths with anger as he shows off his stash.
“We can’t sell all this in six months, that’s impossible,” he said.
“We ask (the authorities) to look for another solution – perhaps they could limit themselves to banning consumption on the street and eliminating hookah sales.”
– ‘Many Thanks’ –
On the consumer side, there are questions about the authorities’ ability to enforce the regulation.
“Is it possible to quit smoking hookah for good?” asked a casual smoker on condition of anonymity.
Measures like closing restaurants during the Covid-19 pandemic have had little effect in a country where many businesses are informal and law enforcement resources are limited.
The news went down pretty well on social media or in conversations in street bars in Bamako.
“Thanks for the hookah ban in Mali, I think we should ban cigarettes now as they are a drug too!” Abdoul Karim Maiga posted on Twitter.
“I think the decree is very important,” Ousmane Toure, a representative of the Tobacco Victims’ Association, told AFP.
“In terms of mortality and morbidity, if we consider hookah and tobacco, we would see that honestly, it’s better to quit,” he said.
Salif Kone, a tobacco specialist, points to a study conducted in schools in Bamako showing that “about 70 percent of young people use hookah”.
– Health risks –
A working group of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in 2017 of the dangers of smoking shisha.
The practice is up to 10 times more harmful than cigarettes but is not being targeted by the same awareness campaigns as tobacco, it said.
It is “up to us, the doctors, the parents of these children, to join our efforts with the government’s to get them to stop using hookah,” Kone said.
Countries like Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have taxed hookah consumption. Others, including Jordan and Cameroon, have banned it.
In Mali, where freedom of expression has been under increasing threat since 2020, hardly any critical voices have been raised apart from shisha bar operators.
“Was that the most urgent thing when our country was hit by a complex crisis?” asked a social scientist on condition of anonymity.
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