Put down that hookah: the Toronto Board of Health wants to crack down on shisha bars

Put down that hookah: the Toronto Board of Health wants to crack down on shisha bars

(Image: Adeel Anwer) (Image: Adeel Anwer)

The Toronto board of health loves nothing better than stirring up a little bit of controversy, and this latest proposal seems destined to do exactly that: the board is asking city council to approve a study of indoor hookah use in Toronto bars and cafés, with a view towards possibly banning all indoor shisha use at commercial establishments as early as next year.

A new report set to go before the board at its meeting on March 24 doesn’t call for an immediate ban, but it does lay out a case for one. Shisha—a sticky, sweetened mix of smokable material—is offered at hookah bars throughout the city (the board of health counts “more than 65” establishments). Because indoor tobacco use is illegal in Ontario, these bars usually advertise their shisha as being tobacco-free, but the report points out that it’s not always possible for users to tell what’s in their pipes, in part because shisha is often poorly labeled. According to the board’s research, even non-tobacco smokables can create dangerous amounts of particulate matter, which can be bad for the health not only of the people doing the smoking, but also of anyone who happens to be around them—particularly hookah-bar workers.

If the report’s recommendations are ultimately approved by city council, the city will have until the end of 2014 to study the hookah menace before making concrete recommendations on restrictions. If the city decides to push ahead, the process will likely be a tricky one. Threats like these have a way of galvanizing businesspeople—in this case, hookah-bar owners—and the result is sometimes legal action, as when the city tried to ban shark fins and plastic bags. There’s also a cultural consideration. Shisha smokers aren’t exclusively 20-something kids and Drake; social hookah use is traditional in the Middle East.

In the meantime, smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em, we guess.