Off the hookah?

Photograph: Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The owner of Alexandria Falafel in Parkdale (#PAR) doesn’t want to talk. The big man with a gravelly voice rests his elbows on the glass covering Mediterranean staples such as dolmades and tabbouleh. “We don’t need people coming to investigate us,” he says, expressing small-business owner paranoia about the recently opened hookah lounge in the back of his shop. “In Toronto, business is hard. We don’t need more headaches.”

He shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Alexandria claims to sell herbal shisha rather than the customary mix of tobacco, molasses and fruit. When heated with coals and smoked from a hookah pipe, the herbal stuff doesn’t contravene the 2005 bill enacted in Ontario and Quebec banning indoor smoking. But with health advocates nipping at their heels, hookah lounges are in danger of becoming extinct, and most owners aren’t keen to draw more attention to their businesses than necessary.

According to Michael Perley, the director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco (OCAT), the Smoke-Free Ontario Act will be amended “likely next year” to include shisha, regardless of its tobacco content, because it would be simple for the government to do and “the evidence is so strong that the smoke is so toxic.”

“This shouldn’t be a big complicated debate,” Perley tells The Grid over the phone. “The science is pretty clear, and we should move on with dealing with it.”

Contrary to popular belief, smoking tobacco shisha is as bad for you as cigarettes, and Perley says any organic compound—“whether it be grass cuttings from a lawn or bark from a tree”—that burns over a period of time, rather than combusting, produces toxins. Though admitting herbal shisha is slightly better, Perley says, “this is on a scale where it’s either very harmful or somewhat less than very harmful.” Perley and other authorities are also skeptical that what’s being sold in hookah lounges is always herbal—a fact he chalks up to businesses being fined for selling tobacco products since the 2005 bill, and the ease of flying under the legal radar. Owners are not required to have their product approved before setting up a hookah lounge, and if police do suspect tobacco being sold, the shisha has to go through lengthy and expensive testing at a Canadian Border Services Agency Lab (CBSA).

For many hookah smokers in Toronto—the majority of whom flock to a concentration of restaurants in the Danforth (#DAN), where there’s a large Arab population—outlawing shisha means nixing an important social tradition, which is known as “sohbet” in Turkish and refers to having a meaningful conversation. That’s why Parkdale resident Mark Schemeit, born in Germany, used to smoke a few times a month when he was living in his home country and in Toronto has occasionally visited Oasis Café and Restaurant in Scarborough (#SCR). “[Hookah smoking] is a good contrast to smoking a cigarette,” he says. “It’s something you enjoy over a long period of time rather than a minute or two… you can really exchange feelings, perspectives and word views.”

For health advocates, the extended inhalation period is the real problem. A 2005 study by the World Health Organization found that, since the typical hookah session can last up to an hour, the amount of smoke inhaled from tobacco shisha is equal to that of more than 100 cigarettes. They also found the water in hookah pipes, which many aficionados claim filters out harmful chemicals, actually removes less than 5 per cent of the nicotine.

Restaurant owners argue shisha, which is typically sold in $10 portions in Toronto, makes up a large part of their revenue, is a cultural tradition and is less habit-forming than cigarettes. OCAT’s Perley has little patience for such justifications: “Find another trend that’s not going to kill people,” he says. “And that’s not going to harm your workers.”