Uproar, Confusion, Debate over Tobacco Tax in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s decision to impose a 100 percent tax on restaurants that serve tobacco products like shisha has ignited criticism on social media and caused confusion among restaurant owners on how to charge the tax, according to a report in France 24/AFP and accounts on Twitter.

The situation has also revealed how Saudis express feedback about new laws and regulations and the media cycle that amplifies those complaints to the rest of the Saudi public and leadership.

The Kingdom already had a 100 percent tax on tobacco products. Earlier this year, The General Authority of Zakat and Tax said a 100% tax would be levied on electronic cigarettes and products used in them as well. Then, a recent ruling from the ministry of rural and municipal affairs said the tax will apply “to the total invoice of the business serving tobacco products.”

Customers of those businesses began uploading photos of their checks from restaurants, with a 100% tax added to the entire bill. A number of restaurants and cafes contacted by AFP “said they believed that the tax applies to all table orders in any establishment that serves tobacco products, whether or not the order included shisha.”

The decision then “sparked an avalanche of criticism on social media networks where the Arabic hashtag ‘tax on hookah restaurants’ is trending in the kingdom, according to the AFP.

But some in Saudi Arabia, voicing their arguments on Twitter, agree with the tax, noting that there are tobacco taxes in other countries and that soaring healthcare costs in the Kingdom means that the government should be taking steps to reduce the number of tobacco-related illnesses.

The use of tobacco is expected to cost the Saudi economy SR480 billion ($128 billion) for the period 2018-2030. Authorities hope to reduce tobacco consumption in the Kingdom to 5 percent by 2030, Arab News reports.

As the social media conversation brewed online, news outlets in the Kingdom began to cover the issue. “Tobacco tax — controversy and confusion,” read a headline in the Al-Madina newspaper on Monday, according to the AFP.