YOU CAN CALL it shisha, hookah, narghile, or qalyan. All of these are synonyms for the same activity: Water pipe smoking. Coming in a variety of flavours, hookah has seen a steady rise in popularity over the past few years in Canada and public health officials have taken notice.
Recently, Ottawa’s City Council proposed a bylaw calling for a smoking ban on any municipal properties, such as parks, public beaches, and outdoor patios. This suggested ban might not be enough for anti-smoking lobbyists. Campaigns have now been launched directed at hookah in an effort to stop businesses from selling the herbal smoke.
“We’d like to see the province amend the Smoke Free Ontario Act and change the definition of smoking. But that could take years and it’s important that this issue get addressed,” says Pippa Beck, policy analyst for the Non-Smokers’ Right Association (NSRA).
Beck lists a number of concerns for implementing a shisha ban, including health risks, misleading packaging, and the growing number of youth who smoke the flavoured tobacco.
“Health Canada has some information on their website about the dangers of smoking herbal cigarettes because inhaling any kind of smoke is harmful to health,” says Beck. “Smoke is filled with particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic chemicals, gasses—and they’re all bad for health.”
According to Beck, because shisha is reported as a herbal product, it allows business owners to sell the flavoured product to minors. However, recent tests done in shisha bars have shown the smoke may not be tobacco free.
“Ottawa has 16 hookah establishments, and all of them claim that they’re serving herbal preparations, and yet when samples have been seized and taken for testing at the lab, they come back positive for tobacco,” says Beck. “Nineteen of 20 establishments last year that were inspected in Ottawa had tobacco convictions levied against them.”
Audy Eden, owner of hookah bar Shahrazad in Ottawa, says he wouldn’t be completely against a ban on shisha. He has plans to sell other products in case a ban goes through.
“Other places depend on shisha only. [I] depend on food and music [as well]. We’re planning now to sell alcohol, just in case they do ban the shisha.”
Eden explains Ottawa would be better off modeling itself after Montreal where shisha is concerned. Instead of having 20 shisha bars, the city should limit the number of licenses it distributes. According to Eden, this would help the city monitor the selling of illegal tobacco products as shisha in these establishments.
Yasmin Abdullahi*, third-year law student at Carleton University and avid shisha smoker, would be against to a hookah ban in Ottawa.
“It’s a cultural thing,” says Hussein about her love for the water pipe. “It’s just recreational. [It’s] when you want to unwind [and] you’re just relaxing with your friends. You go out and you catch up. For those of us who can’t drink or prefer to not smoke cigarettes, it’s like an alternate means of relaxation.”
If shisha is outlawed in Ottawa, Eden warns of the possible repercussions the city will face.
“If you ban shisha 100 per cent, people will find another way,” says Eden. “That’s how the problem will start, and it will become more dangerous, more black market.”
Beck still believes a hookah ban would be the best option for everyone involved, including non-smokers.
“Smoking rates among young adults are significantly higher than the national average,” says Beck. “People don’t appreciate the dangers about smoking. They think it’s fun, it’s something exotic to do, it’s different, and meanwhile they’re on their way to establishing a life threatening addiction.”
* Name has been changed.