Ottawa city council has decided to ban hookahs in public places. Photo: CC, Dean Moriarty.
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Health concerns are legitimate, but a ban won’t solve the problem

On Aug. 31, Ottawa city council decided to ban water pipes, or hookahs, in public spaces. The ban is set to come into play on Dec. 1, though it will not be enforced until April of next year.

The decision came after the Ottawa Board of Health recommended that the City ban hookahs in public spaces. However, since smoking hookahs is a cultural activity for many living in the nation’s capital and the change will negatively impact businesses, it has drawn harsh criticism.

Now don’t get me wrong, the findings from the Ottawa Board of Health are serious, and should be acted on. But for a better solution, we should look to what Toronto city councillors cooked up after a similar ban was voted on in their city on Apr. 1. Instead of an outright ban, some councillors advocated for a hookah lounge permit, which would allow businesses to sell non-tobacco hookah products to people over 19.

Hookah products, which often do not contain tobacco, are widely considered a safer option than regular smoking, according to the same Ottawa Board of Health report. However, the report found that they can often be more dangerous—even without tobacco in them—as they still expose users to carbon monoxide, tar, and other toxins. The Board also found that smoking hookah can in many cases normalize smoking tobacco.

If people go to an establishment that is branded as offering hookahs, you could argue that potential customers should know what they’re getting into. But as the report says, many people do not really understand the risks. It also points out that the risk of second hand smoke is significant, and also underestimated.

The risk of second-hand smoke gives credence to the idea of banning it in public places, especially in the presence of minors.

However, banning the practice outright brings up problems of its own. For one thing, it will incentivize people to smoke more at home, increasing the levels of second-hand smoke affecting friends and family members. If there are still licensed establishments, at least there will be other outlets.

After all, there are other drugs in Canada that can cause long-term harm, yet remain largely ingrained in our culture—perhaps the best example is alcohol.

We know high levels of alcohol are dangerous, with risks of long-term liver and kidney damage, poor short-term decision-making, addiction, and more. And yet, we allow bars to sell copious amounts of alcohol, as long as it’s properly regulated and as long as people who consume it are of age.

There is a strong rationale for restricting hookah use. But hookah lounge permits, where businesses can sell to people over 19, is a much better solution than an outright ban. The regulation will serve as a signal that there is indeed a danger, without demonizing the practice altogether.