Rising tobacco prices cause stir in West Bank

RAMALLAH, (Xinhua) — Mustafa Jum’a, who runs a coffee shop in Ramallah in the West Bank, began to worry about his business as the prices for hookah smoke rise due to an extra tariff imposed on tobacco.

Israeli authorities suddenly raised import tariffs on tobacco, a move the Palestinians have to follow because of the Paris Economic Protocol signed with Israel in 1994, which states the two must have bond import tariffs in the light with the unified customs framework.

Hookah Smoking

Man exhaling hookah smoke

The rise has caused a reduction of customers, said Jum’a, adding most of his customers are public employees that used to come to the coffee shop twice or three times a day. “(They) now come here only once, if not every other day,” he said.

The hookah price in Jum’a’s coffee shop has risen from seven shekels (around 1.8 U.S. dollars) to 12 shekels (3.4 dollars). He made money when hookah smokers order tea, coffee or other drink, so now he makes less profit due to the reduction of customers.

Head of the tobacco customs department in the Ministry of Finance Bandi Dahdah said the new customs tariff requires the payment of 279 shekels (73 dollars) per kilogram, compared with the previous 50 shekels (13 dollars). Since the best tobaccos are imported from Egypt and Bahrain, almost all hookah smokers are affected by the new regulation.

Local tobaccos, mainly produced in the north of the West Bank, are unsuccessful in competing with these Arab blends.

However, the Ministry of Health welcomed the decision, Dahdah said, noting the health ministry hopes the move would encourage smokers to quit smoking. According to an official study, the number of smokers in the Palestinian territories are estimated at 800,000.

“My young children smoke hookah, even my 16-year-old child smokes behind my back. I hope this decision will help them get rid of it,” said Nadia Karim, a 45-year-old mother in Bethlehem.

However, regular smokers are not expected to refrain from smoking after the rise. Mohammed Radi said it’s unlikely for him to stop smoking. “I think we have become addicted to it now,” he smiled and said.

Meanwhile, the price hike has also encouraged tobacco smuggling into the West Bank. Dahdah said “smuggling has become very profitable after the rise in tariffs, and the PNA (Palestinian National Authority) is aware of that and we had fined the smugglers,” Dahdah added.

Dahdah also said “the Palestinian authority is seeking measures to change the economic protocol in general with Israel.”

Cartoons, widely-circulating text messages and jokes among the Palestinians are criticizing the price rise. “From now on, we will honor our guests by slaughtering a Muassel pack for them (as opposed to slaughtering animals to feed them),” One cartoon read.

Angry hookah smokers have turned to social network sites to express displeasure, some of whom even went as far as threatening demonstrations.

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