“Mumkin adhakheen?” Posed less as a question and more as a polite notice for the impending smoke trail, one phrase has pervaded nearly every social interaction I have had since my arrival in Jordan earlier this month. Taxi drivers, lunchtime companions and even my professors have glanced up at me as they light up: “Can I smoke?”
I grew up with three different kinds of inhalers: one for daily asthma maintenance, one for emergencies and one for the rare albuterol-fueled sporting endeavor. Yet despite my bad lungs and zeal for fresh mountain air, I most often find myself saying, “tafadel”: Go ahead. Sometimes, even, “ma alesh?” when a burning tip is inevitably proffered in my direction: Why not? It’s the culture.
Though only two weeks into my tenure in Jordan, I have already begun to understand the ways in which this activity damages the health, well-being and financial security of many people living in Jordan.
My own contradictory relationship with smoking is mirrored in many aspects of the Jordanian ambivalence toward this national habit. A new Jordanian friend of mine told me he hated cigarette companies and what they stood for. As he dragged on his third cigarette of the hour, he waxed on about his belief that they are greedy and not regulated strictly enough by the government.
Perhaps even more beloved — and socially embraced — than cigarettes in Arab culture is shisha. Also known as hookah, argileh and hubbly bubbly, the water pipe used to transmit flavored tobacco remains popular among all age groups and social classes around Amman. However, its health risks are no less significant than those of cigarettes. In a 60-minute hookah session, smokers are exposed to 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jordan topped Middle Eastern countries with regard to smoking among men and ranked third in female smokers in 2017, according to a global study. Experts expect the percentage of smokers to reach an astonishing 50 percent of the population by 2025 if trends continue as they have.
With decades of global information campaigns outing the dangers of tobacco, it feels almost rudimentary to say that smoking damages one’s health, causing fatal diseases such as pneumonia, emphysema and lung cancer. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health statistics said that smoking is blamed for the death of one in every eight Jordanians. I can only imagine that this number will continue to rise with the trend.
However, this habit also disproportionately affects the poor. A study on the economic impact of cigarette smoking on the impoverished in Jordan found that cigarette smoking prevalence is the highest among the poorest. The average adult male cigarette smoker with an income of 100 to 250 Jordanian dinars per month — worth approximately $140 to $350 — spends approximately 25 times more on cigarettes than on health care, approximately 10 times more on cigarettes than on education, approximately 2.5 times more on cigarettes than on housing, and approximately 1.5 times more on cigarettes than on food.
Jordan’s Anti-Smoking Society said Jordanians spend around $650 million a year on cigarettes. This is no small amount, least of all for a country already struggling with an approximate $612 million budget deficit and increasingly high rates of inflation on common goods. Not only is the smoking habit dangerous for one’s health, but it is also becoming financially untenable for many citizens who are struggling to make do in the faltering economy.
The government of Jordan has made significant efforts in recent years to deter the sale of tobacco and spread awareness of the risks associated with smoking. Early 2017 saw an increased tax on cigarettes, a move that was praised by the anti-smoking groups. The aim is to monitor the tobacco epidemic through systematic surveillance, offer help to smokers seeking to quit, spread public knowledge through mass media campaigns, and reduce the affordability of tobacco products. These efforts are a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to systematically shift the national smoking identity, beginning with aggressive health campaigns and greater barriers to smoking.
A social lubricant of sorts, smoking both cigarettes and hookah in Jordan serves many of the same functions as coffee or alcohol in the West. Hours in cafes fly by as Jordanians connect with one another over a shisha pipe or pack of cigarettes. Each culture has its own way of bringing people together; however, the harms of smoking outweigh the benefit of connection and socialization in this context. Ultimately, the onus for change rests on the shoulders of all the stakeholders involved: the suppliers, the government and, most importantly, the consumer.
Hannah Urtz is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Amman It appears online every other Thursday.