Edmonton businesses call for public shisha smoking ban to be lifted

A group of local business owners wants Edmonton city council to reverse a ban they say will have a "devastating" effect on their business.

Shisha lounges would operate as private, members-only clubs with strict health standards

Shisha smoking in public establishments was banned in Edmonton as of Wednesday. (Aijaz Rahi/Associated Press/Canadian Press)

A group of local business owners wants Edmonton city council to reverse a ban they say will have a "devastating" effect on their business.

On Wednesday, a city-wide ban on shisha smoking in public establishments went into effect. The ban has been discussed for more than a year, and shisha lounge owners have formed the Edmonton Hookah Cultural Community to advocate against it.

Many of the businesses, even if they also offer food and drinks, will now struggle to keep their doors open, said lawyer Avnish Nanda.

"It's devastated them," said Nanda, who's working with the group in its dealings with the city.

"I know so many businesses, dozens, will shut down because of this, because shisha is 70 to 90 per cent of their revenue."

Nanda and his clients want shisha lounges to be allowed to open as private, members-only clubs where no minors are allowed with strict safety measures are enforced. Some businesses have already poured tens of thousands of dollars into ventilation systems to meet the city's health and safety standards before the ban was announced, Nanda said.

"This isn't multinational corporations establishing these restaurants," Nanda said. "It's mom and pop Edmontonians. It's people who have a small business. It's how they're putting their kids through school."

Nanda agreed there are serious health concerns to be addressed in regulating shisha lounges, but said council should have done a better job to find a middle ground. He said council should have consulted more with business owners and more broadly with the African and Middle Eastern communities where the ban represents a big loss.

"This is a city with a large Arab and African population, and to take these unilateral actions without adequate consultations is not how these decisions should be made," Nanda said. "All impacted communities should be at the table.

"I just don't think the city was aware of the consequences and the impact on people's identities."

Council's ban was approved in 2019, with a one-year grace period offered before it took effect. 

An official statement from the City of Edmonton on Thursday said businesses can contact the city's business licensing section if they want to operate as private clubs. But even with a licence change, businesses would still be obligated to adhere to the shisha ban.

Mohamad El-Turk, owner of the Sultan Palace restaurant, said shisha accounts for 70 per cent of his sales. The restaurant, which opened in 2006, has been closed for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If this ban isn't overturned, El-Turk said his business won't reopen.

"I didn't even bother to open my doors since March 23, because I know with 30 per cent I won't be able to cover the rent," El-Turk said.

The Edmonton Hookah Cultural Community formed last year to lobby the city, but said a struggling economy and COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from acting sooner.

El-Turk said city council didn't consider heavily enough the cultural and community importance of smoking shisha, as this is an important social gathering that dates back centuries.

"When I go visit Canadian family, they ask me if I drink, they offer me a drink. Same thing happens when you go visit any Middle Eastern family or African family, they ask you if you smoke hookah, they will offer you a hookah," El-Turk said.

Jasdeep Singh, another member of the Edmonton Hookah Cultural Community, opened the Euphoria Lounge last year. He has since helped organize nearly half of the owners of Edmonton's more than 40 lounges to advocate for shisha smoking to be allowed in their businesses again. Singh said he doesn't want to see everything he has invested go to waste.

"We thought food and drinks would be good enough for our lounges, but it was not. Our sales went down to 20 per cent," Singh said. 

"If we don't have shisha, there is no survival for us."