Wadi Rum, North London and the bubbling argileh

The mystical deserts of Jordan is the setting for T.E. Lawrence’s autobiographical account of the Arab campaign during the First World War, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In it he is fully embedded with the Arab Army pushing forward on Turkish positions, the florid description of the landscape, culture and events that surrounds him create an intoxicating atmosphere.

The imagery is often referred to in travel guides, as is the timeless image of locals partaking in shisha or argileh water pipes. Well not for much longer. The streets of Amman are about to become shisha free as the next step in a public health campaign in Jordan removes the licences and permits for water pipes from cafes across the capital.

Larissa Aluar, co-founder of Smoke Free Jordan, points to a mixture of social acceptability and a lack of awareness about the dangers involved. This is particularly prevalent in the youth, many of whom have rejected cigarette smoking but not shisha.

Cigarettes have moved from de rigueur to rigor mortis from the 1960’s to the present day. Yet even though the damage from shisha smoking is several times worse than from a cigarette the association with damaged health is not made. In a recent round of discussion groups with young people in North London I found the exact same pattern that is troubling public health officials in Jordan.

In North London you will find a wonderful mix of cultural influences. Middle Eastern and North African businesses abound with a selection of cafes and bars providing shisha as part of their menu. It is usually smoked in social groups under an awning and an outdoor heater.

Young people that I spoke to viewed shisha as a way of socialising. When compared to smoking cigarettes there was no contest. Shisha is only done occasionally, it tastes nice (usually fruity flavours such as apple) and it is a fun way of socialising. When asked which was worse for you most of the teenagers said that cigarettes and shisha were about the same.

Legislators in Amman see the dangers that this toxic brew of social acceptability and lack of awareness has for its health budget and have acted accordingly. The scale and longevity of the issue in the UK are different but there are pockets across the UK, and in London especially, where this growing social behaviour may be undermining the future health of young people. The question for public health teams is how do they meaningfully change the narrative? We’re trying to find out, watch this space…. 

Graeme Wilson is Chief Executive of The Campaign Company. You can read more about our behaviour change work here.

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