Toronto's licensing and standards committee has struck down a city staff proposal to introduce a licensing system for water pipe establishments.
Committee members weren't satisfied Friday with a staff report that recommended giving out licenses as a way to regulate the growing number of water pipe smoking businesses — or hookah bars — in Toronto.
Cleaning and sanitizing measures, a ban on entry by minors and efforts to control air quality were among proposed new rules in the staff report which went before the licensing committee.
Hookah, also known as shisha, narghile or goza, comes in either tobacco or herbal form and is smoked through a water pipe that heats the substance with charcoal and cools the smoke in a water chamber before it is inhaled through a hose and mouthpiece.
Smoking in enclosed public and work spaces was banned by the Smoke-Free Ontario Act in 2006, making it illegal for hookah lounges to serve tobacco shisha indoors. The smoking ban doesn't cover non-tobacco herbal shisha that hookah establishments offer in a variety of fruity flavours.
Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker, who reviewed the staff report Friday, wanted a more thorough examination of the health issues associated with water pipe smoking. An updated report is now expected in the first quarter of 2013.
"It doesn't matter what you do, it's still going to be unhealthy," De Baeremaeker said.
Friday's committee heard from Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, who cited studies suggesting hookah smoking has similar effects to cigarette smoking in terms of lung and heart damage, especially when smoked with tobacco-based mixtures.
By regulating hookah smoking and handing out licenses to future businesses, Toronto could diminish the importance of examining the activity's health concerns, said Perley, who is in favour of banning shisha altogether.
"This would send a message to young people that smoking shisha is okay," Perley said. "By regulating it, this normalizes and legitimizes the behaviour."
According to Perley, the improper labelling of various types of shisha usually leads to a higher chance that customers are unknowingly smoking substances which may contain traces of tobacco.
Tracey Cook, executive director of the Municipal Licensing and Standards Division, said she isn't entirely opposed to a hookah ban, but because of its ties to a wider public health issue, she said it's not necessarily within the city's jurisdiction to take such a step.
Cook said the city report her division produced was a response to hookah bars with underage patrons and zero regulations.
The report's proposed rules would have required hookah bars to retain ingredient lists and packaging to prove that the shisha they offer is tobacco free. They would also have had to maintain proper ventilation to address air quality concerns over shisha smoke and burning charcoal from the hookah pipe.
The licensing division's report estimated there are approximately 80 restaurants, bars and cafes that offer hookah in Toronto.
Toronto Public Health has laid charges against 25 establishments for providing tobacco shisha since 2010.
But some owners of establishments which offer water pipe smoking say there are already enough regulations in place.
"I don't think the government should have a say in it, period," said Samira Mohyeddin, manager of Iranian restaurant Banu on Queen Street West, which serves hookah. "The licence, I'm sure, is just another way to make money."
She said her restaurant already follows many of the proposed regulations.
Banu only offers non-tobacco hookah and Mohyeddin said the restaurant already thoroughly cleans hookah pipes to prevent them from clogging and sanitizes them with alcohol.
She often turns away young patrons, Mohyeddin said.
"I don't really enjoy 12-year-olds coming to my establishment and smoking," she said.
The idea that herbal shisha is safer than other forms of smoking is a wide misconception, said Suzanne Thibault, manager of Toronto Public Health's chronic disease injury prevention department.
Smoking tobacco-free shisha produces the same amount of carbon monoxide, nitric oxide and tar as tobacco shisha, according to research cited in a Toronto Public Health report.
"The only difference has been that tobacco hookah would obviously have the nicotine whereas in herbal, it wouldn't," said Thibault. "In terms of other toxicants, they're just as harmful."
Diseases such as meningitis and herpes may also be transmitted through pipe sharing, which is why the licence would require establishments to properly clean each hookah pipe before use.