Naressa Rahmam is an occasional shisha smoker. The third-year Ryerson geography student started smoking the herbal-based product about four years ago, while she was in high school. Now, Rahmam smokes at only social gatherings — her favourite flavour is watermelon.
“There’s a lot of places in Toronto where you can go hang out and do shisha,” she said.
But she, like many Ryerson students, is unaware of the health risks that are associated with this social activity. A hookah, similar to a bong, is used to smoke shisha. Shisha is a vapourized herbal product that is available in a variety of flavours, ranging from fruity to chocolate.
At the Board of Health meeting on March 24, Toronto medical officer Dr. David McKeown proposed public consultations to look into the effects of hookah in Toronto bars and lounges. The consultations would determine whether hookah smoking should be banned in bars due to health concerns, McKeown said, referring specifically to tobacco-free shisha.
A study conducted by the University of Alberta showed that the air pollution levels in 12 tobacco-free hookah lounges were just as hazardous as secondhand smoke from a cigarette-filled bar. The report also said that smoking tobacco-based hookah can lead to lung, oral and bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease and addiction — similar to the health effects of smoking cigarettes.
The Ryerson campus is among the list of Toronto locations that provide opportunities for hookah use. The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) welcomed incoming frosh this year by holding a week full of events, one of which was a shisha lounge. But now there are questions about how harmful smoking can be.
“If it was harmful, then I would definitely stop (smoking), but I haven’t seen really symptoms appearing on me,” Rahmam said. “It really hasn’t affected anything.”
Anjalie Shivakumar is the team lead at Leave the Pack Behind, a campus smoking information program. She says that many students she’s talked to believe that shisha is “better for them” because it was “herbal and natural.”
“It’s a social event,” Shivakumar says. “People usually get together and smoke it.”
The activity is also popular among the Bangladeshi Students’ Association (BSA) and Pakistani Students’ Associations, which hosted an Arabian shisha night in November last year.
York and the University of Toronto also held shisha events during welcome week. At the board meeting, Coun. Sarah Doucette called this “horrifying.”
Ridwan Hossein, the co-chair of the BSA, said the group was trying to offer something “different” to students. The event was sponsored by a local shisha lounge, Eclipse, which brought discounted shisha and hookahs for students at the Ram in the Rye. Nearly 80 students attended the event.
According to the RSU Twitter account, the student union plans to host another shisha event soon. But most students are unaware of the possible negative health effects of smoking shisha.
“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think there is any (health issue) — it’s essentially flavoured water,” Hossein said.
A University of Alberta study says that carcinogenic compounds can be found in shisha, similar to those found in tar and mothballs — up to three times more than in cigarettes. Though smoking shisha containing tobacco in a public place is illegal in Ontario — under the Smoke-Free Ontario Act — the activity is mostly unregulated. McKeown, however, feels the city should take responsibility.
“A large proportion of (shisha) establishments (in the province) are in the city of Toronto,” he said. “We have more of a burning platform to take action on this.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 26, 2014.