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Most Arab countries, like many other low to middle income nations, are still in the relatively early stages of the cigarette tobacco epidemic. Lebanon has the dubious position among Arab countries of being the only one with relatively equal rates of cigarette smoking among men and women. The water pipe is a traditional form of tobacco smoked in Arab countries, including Lebanon. Recently, trends have shifted between tobacco types, and water pipe smoking is becoming the preference for young people and women specifically, ousting the once more popular cigarette. As an indicator of its popularity, thriving new delivery services have appeared, linked to mobile phones. By using their phones in accordance with prescribed directions, customers can even specify the number and flavour of pipes they want. According to how many times they call the sales line, the appropriate water pipe(s) will be delivered to their home for the equivalent of just US$1 dollar apiece.
Taking advantage of this visible trend, the state subsidised tobacco company recently launched a new tobacco product for use with the water pipe. It is clearly aimed at the youth market—its name, “Shabablek”, literally translates as “Youthful”. Its advertisements depict young men and women enjoying evenings out on the town. Ironically, with an eye on an ever “health conscious consumer”, the new product comes in individually wrapped portions (hitherto in large bales) and the promise that it has not been touched by human hands. The new product got an unmistakable boost by being launched under the aegis of the minister of finance, indicating a continuing focus on short term financial gain, rather than long term health planning.
Wedged at the end of the Mediterranean, Lebanon strives to find its way between differing cultures and continents. The images promoted by multinationals and more recently the state sponsored tobacco companies are of hip, trendy, and successful young persons enjoying the ideals more commonly attributed to the west. Most recently, a picture of a bikini clad young woman lying beside a swimming pool in Beirut and smoking a water pipe was widely circulated. To traditionalists, such pictures will undoubtedly portray an image of Lebanon not welcomed by the eastern world. But to others, it will seem an affirmation of the country’s future prosperity. To those who want to profit from western minded young consumers, such images must seem like helpful free marketing. Whatever their cultural significance, the lifestyle they illustrate has serious implications for the health of future generations of Lebanese people.