Turkey - smoking ban, cafes (teahouses) losing business, owners threaten to strike..

August 31, 2009 - With smoking ban in place cafe owners continue complain about loss of business. The “kahvehane” -- the traditional Turkish teahouse where whiskered men have smoked, drunk tea and played cards, backgammon and dominos for centuries -- has seen better days.

If it was not enough that the worst economic crisis in the past 60 years has ravaged the country's employment and consumption figures and driven down kahvehanes' customer base by up to 50 percent, the smoking ban, which came into full effect last month, has caused an estimated loss of an additional 20 percent of customers. Even Ramadan, a period when the kahvehanes have historically experienced an explosion in business, does not seem to be providing any respite to the plummeting business.

The situation of kahvehane owners has deteriorated so badly in the aftermath of the smoking ban that they have threatened political action ranging from sit-ins to strikes or even hunger strikes if the government does not address their concerns.
Kahvehane owners are worried that if the government does not take action and loosen the rigidity of its present smoking ban, half of the over 100,000 kahvehanes across the country will be squeezed out of business, causing the ranks of the unemployed to swell by hundreds of thousands.

Kahvehanes have, since time immemorial, been the sanctuary of retired and unemployed Turkish men wishing to escape the stresses of everyday life. It's therefore somewhat ironic that during this time of unprecedented unemployment -- which now stands at 13.6 percent -- these teahouses are not brimming with unemployed men whose numbers are expanding on an hourly basis. Instead, business is worse than ever.

İsa Güven, president of the Ankara Chamber of Coffeehouse Proprietors (AKO), told Sunday's Zaman that business was down by upwards of 50 percent as a result of the crisis. The smoking ban, he said, has taken an additional 20 percent bite out of the industry. He said that it was hard to untangle the effects of the smoking ban from the effects of the crisis.

Estimates vary, but according to some, about 70 percent of Turkey's adult male population smokes. In kahvehanes, those that Sunday's Zaman spoke with said that almost 100 percent of the customer base smokes. “Our potential customers are smokers,” said Murat Ağaoğlu, president of the 100,000-strong Turkish Teahouses and Canteens Federation (TKKBF).

“Given these circumstances, no one can come to a kahvehane where there is a smoking ban,” he said. He did not feel that the option of putting a few tables outside for men to smoke at, as has been the suggestion of many, was a particularly viable option. “If you put tables outside, the neighbors complain. Who wants to see a couple of tables crowded with a bunch of men playing cards and smoking below their apartment?”

But if the government does not take immediate action to improve the situation, Güven said, upwards of 50 percent of kahvehanes face the risk of closing their doors permanently, which would lead to a startling jump in unemployment. Ağaoğlu said that in addition to the 100,000 kahvehanes registered with the TKKBF, an additional 100,000 kahvehanes are not registered with the TKKBF, and when these are factored into the equation, the number of people “earning their bread” from the kahvehane business could amount to well over a million. Business never been worse..

“Very, very, very, very bad,” is how Muharem Öz, an employee at Altınyol teahouse in Osmanbey described the situation when asked by Sunday's Zaman how his business was holding up in the wake of the crisis and smoking ban. Standing in the doorway of a completely empty kahvehane with a lit cigarette in his hand (the cigarette was outside the door), he said that in all of his many years in the business, things had never been worse. Next to him were two older men squatting on the sidewalk of the mainly residential street, puffing on cigarettes and nodding their heads in agreement.

Business was so bad, Öz claimed, that he was not even able to determine whether or not the smoking ban had contributed to a further drop in business. “It doesn't matter,” he said when asked about the effects of the smoking ban. “There are no customers to drive away.”

According to him, Ramadan, a time when kahvehanes are traditionally smoke-filled dens overflowing with tea-drinking card players who stay there till the wee hours of the morning, has provided no relief: Business is down to alarming levels. “People just don't have any money to come,” he said. This year, he said, Ramadan was less busy than even the worst of normal times of past years.

A petition has been presented to the government asking for immediate action. Proposed has been the creation of smoking and non-smoking sections, separated by a partition with an air filter, or smoking and non-smoking kahvehanes. If no actions are taken, kahvehane owners and workers have threatened to launch a one-week strike. Some have gone so far as to threaten hunger strikes.

Reference: Cafe owners shun smoking ban, say many kahvehanes may close down, Today's ZAMAN, 8/31/2009.

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