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HomeBusinessCigars for the rich, hookah for the poor – DW – 07/25/2023

Cigars for the rich, hookah for the poor – DW – 07/25/2023

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When taking a walk along the cafes and restaurants in Beirut, it is impossible not to notice the intense smell of fruity tobacco permeating the nostrils as it wafts from hookahs.

Hookah, locally known as narghile or shisha, is a waterpipe used for smoking tobacco or flavored tobacco (or moassal). Smoking hookah is not only a way to smoke but also a social activity, a tradition, and a ritual in Lebanon, enjoyed by both men and women from all walks of life. 

A picture of burning charcoal in a waterpipe
Charcoal is used to heat the tobacco in a hookah, producing smoke that passes through the water before inhaledImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Strache

Tony, 28, works in a cafe in Furn El-Chebbak, just outside the outskirts of the Lebanese capital. There he takes scorching charcoal pieces from a blackened brazier and puts them on the hookah bowl. The bowl consists of flavored tobacco covered by perforated tinfoil. Tony rushes to bring the hot hookah to a customer.

“We have hundreds of customers per day. Many of them are regular. They come here to relax, to get away from their problems,” he told DW.

For many Lebanese, smoking hookah has remained one of the few things still affordable in a country entrapped in an economic crisis that has been persisting since late 2019. But despite the economic crisis, smoking hookah has remained a popular choice for most of the population. 

Smoking cigars, on the other hand, has become a privilege reserved for the wealthy elite who can afford this luxury. This trend highlights how the economic crisis has exacerbated the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. 

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Breath out stress with hookah

Somar, 28, is chilling with his friend outside a cafe, smoking a hookah with apple-flavored tobacco after finishing his work at a hair transplant clinic. 

Smoking narghile here in Lebanon is well known, he says. “Everyone loves it. After work, when you smoke, everything leaves your mind, and you feel happy and relieved from stress,” he told DW.

Somar pays $3 (€2.70) to smoke hookah at the cafe, but he mentioned that some cafes might charge as much as $10, depending on the location and the quality of tobacco and service.

Smoking hookah is a very common practice in Lebanon, however, it doesn’t necessarily translate to a profitable business for everyone.

Mazen, 35, has a tiny shop in a Sunni neighborhood of Beirut. He told DW that his business isn’t doing well. “It was better during the Covid-19 pandemic when there was a lockdown. Everyone smoked shisha at home on the balcony. But now, the business has slowed down, despite my low prices.”

Charcoal pieces are displayed outside Mazen's tiny shop in a Sunni neighborhood of Beirut and are sold at $1.5 per kilogram.
Mazen sells all you need to smoke at home. His charcoal is cheap, at $1.5 per kilogram (2.2 pounds)Image: Dario Sabaghi /DW

Some blocks further on, Hammad, 35, goes to buy a hookah tobacco tin from a small shop with colorful hookahs displayed in its window. “We have fun with shisha after work, and we like mixing flavored tobacco,” the 35-year-old IT technician told DW.  

After Hammed leaves, the shop’s owner, Tarek Adada, 41, tells DW that his business is going well. “People smoke at home. They have nothing to do,” he said.

But not everyone can afford to smoke hookah every day. For Samir, a retired man in his 70s, smoking hookah has become a habit. “Smoking apple-flavored tobacco has become a pastime for me. It’s not a pleasure. I try to smoke every day for one hour and a half, but I can’t afford it every day, even if it costs me about $2 at the cafe.”

According to figures from the Tobacco and Tobacco Inventory Department (Al-Regie) reported by the local newspaper Al-Modon, the number of cigarette smokers in Lebanon has remained stable in recent years. However, the segment of hookah smokers has significantly expanded, more than doubling in size.

The production of hookah molasses has remarkably increased, from approximately 228,139 boxes in 2020 to 592,251 in 2022. Molasses production in Lebanon more than doubled during the economic crisis between 2020 and 2022. Further growth is expected in the coming years.

Have cigars become a status symbol in Lebanon?

In late May, Statista, a German-based statistics portal, published a surprising report stating that Lebanese were the world’s biggest spenders on cigars in 2022.

Deepanshu Onkar, an external analyst at Statista, told DW that Lebanon has a considerably higher smoking rate than other countries. Onkar also said that tobacco products are inelastic commodities, and that cigars remain unaffected by the economic crisis thanks to their luxury appeal and premiumization trend.

“Those with the means to afford them are less likely to make sacrifices,” he said.

Additionally, growing inflation

Woody Ghsoubi, 35, runs Club Mareva Beirut, a cigar club in the Lebanese capital, along with his wife and business partner Najat Abdo, 37. He told DW that cigars are not inherently luxury products, but in Lebanon, people perceive them as a symbol of social status. “There has been an influx of people who gained money during this situation, and they are now spending lavishly on cigars and other expensive items, considering them as luxuries,” he said.

Woody Ghsoubi, the co-owner of Club Mareva Beirut, stands inside the humidor room, displaying a box of a limited-edition cigar
Ghsoubi imports cigars from Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica, offering about 350 types of cigarsImage: Dario Sabaghi /DW

Prices of Ghsoubi’s cigars range from $9 to over $100 per cigar, with some costing even $600, like the Davidoff Oro Blanco cigar.

Ghsoubi told DW that he opened the club in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. Despite initial delays, his business eventually took off.  “Our customers spend an average of about $500 per month on both cigars and alcohol.”

In Ghsoubi’s shop there is a humidor where Jan-Paul Abdallah is choosing his next cigar to smoke. The 44-year-old operations manager in a brokerage firm says that his father used to smoke cigars, and that he was about 19 years old when he started to smoke. “I never think about how much I spent on cigars. But I have a minimum average of $10 to $20 per day. I spent between $300 to maybe $600 per month if you want,” he told DW.

Abdallah explained that smoking cigars is not necessarily a status symbol. 

“I don’t smoke a cigar because of my status; I smoke it because I like it. I know that society may view cigars as a status symbol, but I don’t care,” he said.

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

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