Businesses that offer customers shisha water pipes to smoke tobacco are waging an 11th-hour bid for an exemption to a smoking ban that comes into force in England on Sunday.
Without the shisha, narguila or hookah, as the water pipes are variously called, dozens of restaurants will lose their main appeal to tourists, while shisha joints will see their sole activity disappear.
"It's a disaster, we don't know what to do because we are blocked with an 11-years lease signed in 2003," said Youssef Benfadel, the owner of the Mamounia lounge and two restaurants in central London's Queensway.
"Moreover, the council refuse the Mamounia lounge to be transformed into a restaurant," said Benfadel, who is of Moroccan origin.
He said the disappearance of the shisha businesses -- where no alcohol is served in general -- will have a broader economic impact.
"Arabs and Asian people generate a lot of business for tourism, shopping and gambling. Lots of Europeans also come for the shisha," he said, adding they will now head to other countries.
To save a tradition that is all the rage among young people who love the apple or other fruit and honey flavours mixed with the tobacco, the merchants association of Edgware Road in London -- home to many shisha businesses -- has launched a "save the shisha campaign" which has attracted 500 members.
A petition on the prime minister's website had recorded 9,439 signatures by Thursday. A paper petition circulating in London has received nearly 20,000 signatures.
"The shisha is part of our culture, its banning will destroy a whole community," said Ibrahim el-Nour, who heads the Edgeware Road association and coordinates the campaign to save his favourite pastime.
"Mental houses and prisons will have some exemptions, why not shisha bars? Even in New York where the regulation is very strict, they have found a solution for the shisha bars," Nour said.
Murad Qureshi, member of the London Assembly and shisha smoker, conceded it was "too late" to change the law but hoped it could be implemeted with some latitude.
"I'm worried about the economic and cultural effects," he said.
Until now, the health ministry has been firm. "There will be no exemption for the shisha," a spokeswoman said.
However, Alan Johnson's nomination as health secretary in the government of Britain's new Prime Minister Gordon Brown could change things because "he is sympathetic to our problem," Benfadel said.
A group called Freedom2Choose is meanwhile expected to launch a High Court challenge Friday over the smoking ban in enclosed public places, based on the contention that it violates human right laws.
The ban which starts on Sunday covers virtually all enclosed public places including offices, factories, pubs and bars, but not outdoors or in private homes.
England will become the last part of the United Kingdom to go smoke-free: smoking was banned in enclosed public places in Scotland on March 26 last year and was outlawed in Wales on April 2 and Northern Ireland on April 30.
The health authorities are relying mainly on a World Health Organisation study from 2005 which said: "Using a water pipe to smoke tobacco poses a serious potential health hazard to smokers and others to the smoke emitted."
It found that the regular water pipe smoker is exposed to larger amounts of nicotine, carbon monoxide and certain other toxins than the typical cigarette smoker.
It points out that the force needed to pull the air through the hose allows the smoke to reach much deeper into the lungs.
Several experts said a smoker absorbs 200 times more smoke in one hour with a water pipe than with a five-minute cigarette.
Such arguments are rejected by shisha supporters who say there is no real dependence because nicotine is virtually absent.
"Everyone is talking for weeks about that dreaded day. What are we going to do after July 1st?," asked Ranna, a 21-year-old British woman of Iranian descent.
"Smoking shisha, it's a social gathering. We meet each other to discuss, play cards, have a little bit of our home country atmosphere, listen to music. It's very multi-cultural, with a lot of non-Muslims coming," she added.
For these young people, the pub and night clubs are not alternatives.
"We can't talk, it's very noisy and you can be attacked," said Zohreh, a 20-year-old British psychology student of Iranian origin.