Toronto shisha shops to go up in smoke by next April

This story was updated to include comment from two Toronto city councillors.

Hookah business owners in Ward 27 are expressing frustration as their shops go up in smoke.

Toronto city council voted to ban the use of hookahs at licensed establishments Wednesday Nov. 4. The ban will go into effect April 1.

It’s a vote that has left hookah business owners in Ward 27, where Ryerson University is located, confused.

“They want to allow weed and not shisha. It’s just nonsense,” said Wael Ben, co-owner of Shisha & Co. near Yonge and Wellesley streets, referring to the federal push for marijuana legalization while hookah bars in Toronto face a municipal crackdown.

A customer exhales shisha smoke in Toronto Nov. 4, 2015. (Charlotte Arnold/Ryersonian Staff)

A customer exhales shisha smoke in Toronto Nov. 4, 2015. (Charlotte Arnold/Ryersonian Staff)

“I don’t know why they’re just looking for the shisha,” said Razaq Shamsa, owner of Ali Basha Cafe near Church and Dundas streets.

Shamsa argues that alcohol has adverse health effects as well, yet the city continues to allow the sale of the alcoholic beverages while banning hookah lounges.

Business owners and managers also argue that their establishments are not merely a place to smoke; they’re a place for local communities.

“It’s mostly for socializing,” said Ben.

“Most of the people that come here are Middle Eastern,” said Sheryl Efondo, the manager of Shishalicious near Jarvis and Church streets.

She said these patrons have expressed their opinions on the ban, saying “‘where else will we go? We don’t drink.’ This is their only place to chill.”

Toronto City Councilman Jim Karygiannis, who voted against the ban, agrees that there’s a disproportional effect against those of Middle Eastern descent.

“It was a slap in the face to the Middle Eastern communities,” said Karygiannis.

The councilman argued that smoking shisha was a part of Middle Eastern culture, and therefore the practice should be protected and regulated.

It’s an argument Toronto City Council woman Kristyn Wong-Tam of Ward 27 quickly dismissed.

“We can’t stand behind culture,” said Wong-Tam. “Culture can’t be used as a defence when it becomes a harm to the public good.”

Wong-Tam used her own ethnic background as an example: She explained that foot binding was a common practice in Chinese culture. But, like drinking during pregnancy, that practice soon changed over time.

She also said the majority of the people who used culture as a defence against the proposed ban were business operators.

“If your cultural habit has an adverse impact on public space… we’re going to have to change those habits,” she said.

A shisha establishment in Toronto with hookah pipes on the right-hand side Nov. 4, 2015. (Charlotte Arnold/Ryersonian Staff)

A shisha establishment in Toronto with hookah pipes on the right-hand side Nov. 4, 2015. (Charlotte Arnold/Ryersonian Staff)

The adverse health impact that Wong-Tam is referring to is research that finds hookah smoke to carry similar health repercussions to users and secondhand users of shisha, according to a September fact sheet released by the CDC.

Research done by the U.S.-based National Centre for Biotechnology Information, and referenced in the CDC report, also found herbal smoke from hookah pipes to have similar health effects to tobacco smoke; the amount of nicotine was the only difference.  

Wong-Tam said it’s these findings that resulted in the 34-3 vote in favour of the ban, and what caused her to dismiss Karygiannis’ proposal to simply regulate the industry by banning minors and alcohol from hookah bars and lounges.

But Karygiannis believes these statistics are reason enough to keep hookah bars and lounges open and enact his proposed regulation, so children are less likely to be exposed to smoke at home and the industry can remain regulated.

“We’re doing prohibition 1920s style, and that will only drive the stuff underground,” he said, arguing that most people will just decide to smoke in their homes. “Who are we protecting?”

An unregulated hookah industry is a concern shared by Ryerson student and Shishalicious patron Leyan Selah.

“I think banning it will make things worse,” she said. Selah is concerned that the ban will just cause smokers to indulge in their Watermelon Mint and Mango flavoured habits in less controlled environments.

But Wong-Tam argued it was the responsibility of City Council to protect the health of the public, and that any decision to smoke at home was up to the individual.

She also believes businesses will survive the hookah ban, just as many businesses survived when the city enacted a cigarette ban for licensed establishments.  

Whether or not businesses like Ali Basha and Shishalicious survive, patrons will be left to find somewhere else to smoke their shisha amongst good company come April 1.

This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 11, 2015.

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