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Hookah or hook-nah?

A downtown cultural committee is determined
to fight the ban on shisha smoking

Crown Hookah Lounge: Closed by Coronavirus or Shisha regulations? (Benjamin Hollihan)

Editors’ notebook
By Brittany Burridge
& Benjamin Hollihan

THE CITY OF EDMONTON implemented a ban on shisha smoking in public establishments on July 1, 2020. The hookah community has been pushing back ever since.

The Edmonton Hookah Cultural Committee (EHCC), a group of 12 local hookah lounge owners, was formed in 2018 to advocate for shisha lounges. This activism has been heard. Jan. 20, a council committee tasked with reviewing the issue voted to put forth the creation of a new business licence for hookah lounges. This licence would allow shisha smoking in public establishments, provided it’s done in a physically separate area from dining, drinking, and minors.

Should shisha smoking be allowed?

The argument for hookah

Hookah bars in Edmonton welcome all ethnicities and offer insight into Middle East culture.

Hookah has been a cultural practice in many Middle Eastern families since the 16th century. According to the hookah blog Fumari, hookah allows families, friends and business associates to provide hospitality and strengthen bonds. With proper precautions, hookah bars could continue to unite Edmontonians. The pandemic has proved human connection is vital to the well-being of the city.

In an interview with Edmonton Journal, the legal counsel for the EHCC, Avnish Nanda, spoke of the importance of hookah bars.

“It’s also to allow folks to practise their culture with the community, and it’s a big thing to folks,” Nanda said. “It’s more than just smoking something. It’s about connection to something.

Cultural significance aside, hookah bar owners are suffering financially. The Journal states that 45 lounges within the city risk closing due to upcoming bans.

Mohamad El-Turk, a shisha bar owner, told Global News that hookah is the foundation of his business, with 70 per cent of sales coming from it. Hookah bars were asked to make changes to their ventilation systems in 2018. Khaldoun Hakima told Global News his new bar ventilation system cost $65,000.

After paying for costly improvements, owners are saying they are frustrated that they may have to close regardless. Hookah establishments are tobacco and nicotine free. Still, there’s discussion regarding safety within the lounges and minimizing second-hand smoke.

Despite raising similar health concerns, the discussion of cannabis-consumption lounges is ongoing.

How can the city refuse hookah bars, but allow cannabis bars?

The argument against hookah

As Edmonton grapples with COVID-19, there should be no question about the legitimacy of public health measures.

Hookah smoking isn’t healthier than tobacco smoking. The WHO states there is a “widespread, but unsubstantiated belief held by many waterpipe users today­ – that the practice is relatively safe.”

The non-tobacco shisha used by hookah bars in Edmonton isn’t safer to consume either. According to a study by the  U.S. Centers for Disease Control, on the effects of shisha, the herbal alternative was found to “contain carbon monoxide and other toxic agents known to increase the risks for smoking-related cancers, heart disease and lung disease.”

Shisha is no exception to the health risks of second-hand smoke – and this raises concerns for those who will be working in these establishments. Allowing shisha lounges to reopen sends an irresponsible signal to the public that hookah smoking is safe. Smoking inside a public establishment shouldn’t be allowed, no exceptions.

Many hookah lounge owners say the ban has ruined their businesses. In a CBC article from July 2020, EHCC member Jasdeep Singh says operating as a bar and restaurant was annihilating his bottom line.

“We thought food and drinks would be good enough for our lounges, but it was not. Our sales went down to 20 per cent.”

In 2008, it became illegal to smoke inside public areas and workplaces in Edmonton. The same argument was made about loss of business then, too. After 13 years, the restaurant and nightclub industry hasn’t
imploded – COVID-19 closures aside. Hookah lounges will have to adapt as all bars did then. The City of Edmonton should not provide differential treatment.

Our take

Safety is paramount. The proposed health rules must be implemented and enforced. The employees should be provided PPE for second-hand smoke, if requested. Only if a business owner ignores regulations should the establishment be closed.

There’s a caveat: If hookah establishments are allowed to apply for these new licences, so should other establishments. This may pave the way for cannabis lounges or cigar bars. This licence could foster other vibrant communities and provide gathering spaces to those previously denied.

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