Turkey nargileh culture under threat

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Just like the centuries-old coffee tradition, the nargileh, or water pipe, is a mainstay of Turkish culture but authorities are clamping down on this ancient social ritual that health experts say is as harmful to health as smoking regular cigarettes.

Fans of the water pipe, also known as a hookah or shisha, can no longer get their fix in cafes, bars, and restaurants after a law banning smoking from closed public spaces came into force in January.

This new measure is a sign that the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) means business in its crackdown on smoking in a country where almost a third of adults puff away.

In 2009, authorities banned smoking in public places and slapped taxes on both alcohol and tobacco products. The tax imposed on cigarettes rose by a staggering 195 percent between 2005 and 2011. The result: a 15-percent drop in cigarette sales.

Cunning hookah cafe managers soon found ways around the ban, taunting authorities by serving customers on outside terraces, but sheltered from the elements by bay windows.

Cafes also changed their menus to offer more fruity mixes with a lower tobacco content that won over even Istanbul's more traditional smoking dens, and caught on with tourists.

But this year’s measure is more severe, and little appreciated by nargileh fans in the downtown Kizilay neighborhood in the heart of the capital Ankara.

“Before 2009, we sold 300 hookahs daily. Now it is only 50 and the new measure will bring down our business,” laments Alican Ali, a waiter at the Tombeki cafe.

On the cafe's terrace, students -- both girls and boys -- pull on their pipes and chat over tea or coffee, or a game of “tavla”, the Turkish backgammon. A smell of cinnamon, apricot and apple tobacco fills the air.

Popular in much of the Middle East and parts of Asia, the water pipe goes by a number of names including hookah in India and Pakistan and shisha in Egypt, derived from hashish, for which the pipe was originally used.

Essentially a male past-time, the nargileh has enjoyed a revival among Turkish young people in recent years and is now smoked by both men and women.

In 2010, the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) of 14 countries, supported by the World Health Organization, found that most of Turkey's hookah smokers were aged between 15 and 24.

Keen to cash in on the trend, a crop of specialist websites now offer tobacco flavors ranging from cappuccino to watermelon, and funky colored bases and hoses to personalize a pipe.

‘Conviviality and friendship’

The hookah is prepared by filling the base with water, crumbling tobacco of choice into a bowl and lighting charcoal in a ritual intrinsically linked to the Turkish culture. People can then while away the hours, inhaling at leisure.

But with the new law forcing them outside into the cold or boiling sun to smoke, pipe lovers fear the experience will not be the same.

“It will be difficult to stand in the cold or in the sun for two hours. With a cigarette, you can take a puff whenever you like but the hookah needs preparation, time and a space, which give it a very special character,” says the bartender at Tombeki, who did not give his name.

“The nargileh is about conviviality and friendship in a world where we are forced to live at 100 miles an hour.”

At the next table, two students are quietly sipping their tea, a hookah on the go.

“I am well aware that it is bad for health but it is not like smoking,” says 23-year-old Elif Karadele, who smokes every day.

This is exactly the misconception that health specialists take issue with: fruity it may be, but the tobacco in the nargileh is just as damaging to health as regular smoking, if not more so, doctors warn.

According to findings from the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an hour-long session with a nargileh is the equivalent of inhaling 100-200 cigarettes.

The bigger intake of breath needed to inhale from a water pipe means hookah users may absorb higher concentrations of toxins.

“The hookah flavors are even more dangerous since smokers think they are inhaling something harmless,” specialist Cengizhan Elmas warns.

“Even if there is little tobacco, people inhale toxic substances such as carbon monoxide and heavy metals” present in the charcoal used to heat the pipe, he adds.

Smoking a shisha can cause the same kinds of diseases as cigarettes, the U.S. center found, including oral and lung cancers, and decrease fertility.

But for the moment the threat appears to remain fairly limited: the GATS study found that just 2.3 percent of Turkey’s smokers used water pipes.

Tombeki cafe regular Nuri Aydin says he has no intention of giving up the pipe. “I come here three or four times a week. It is a passion,” says the 24-year-old.

“I saw my father and grandfather smoking and I am keeping up the tradition. They should let us do it!”

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