Edmonton could only allow shisha smoking again with province buy-in: report

The provincial government would have to exempt shisha from new rules if Edmonton wants to once again permit shisha smoking in lounges, a report prepared for the city has concluded.

Findings contradicted by province; lawyer for lounge owners says report makes no sense

Edmonton city administration has walked back a report on shisha smoking in lounges, acknowledging the city would not need provincial buy-in to reverse its ban on the practice. (Michel Spingler/Associated Press)

The provincial government would have to exempt shisha from new rules if Edmonton wants to once again permit shisha smoking in lounges, a report prepared for the city has concluded.

But that finding is contradicted by Alberta Health, which says the legal changes that take effect later this spring don't address the use of hookah or waterpipes in public places, and the province is allowing municipalities to regulate the practice.

Edmonton's community and public service committee ordered the report in January following backlash to a city ban on shisha smoking that took effect in July 2020.

The report said the city could establish a separate business licence class for shisha lounges and could amend a public bylaw to allow indoor smoking of shisha. That would "effectively reverse" last year's ban.

City administration said those actions would be moot, however, if Edmonton does not ask the provincial government to exempt shisha from recent changes to the law.

"The province is advancing upcoming changes to the Tobacco and Smoking Reduction Act, which, as currently proposed, would prohibit the consumption of shisha indoors," stated the report released Thursday.

"Once this legislation is proclaimed it will supersede any municipal legislation."

The provincial act was changed last June to regulate vaping but the amendments, which come into effect later this spring, make no specific reference to shisha.

An Alberta Health spokesperson said smoking shisha that contains tobacco remains prohibited in and near public places. Apart from that, rules around indoor shisha smoking are largely left to the city.

"The Government of Alberta has determined that the regulation of hookah or waterpipe use should be handled by municipalities, who are well equipped to understand their communities' needs in relation to hookah or waterpipe use and can develop regulations to reflect their community interests," Zoe Cooper said in a statement.

Smoking shisha is seen as a social gathering, often drawing customers of African or Middle Eastern backgrounds. It is a tradition that dates back centuries, originating in places like India, Persia, and Ethiopia.

City didn't do proper due diligence, lawyer says

Avnish Nanda is a lawyer for the Edmonton Hookah Cultural Committee, a group of more than a dozen shisha lounge owners who have been lobbying the city to get the ban overturned.

He said city officials reneged on a promise to send the report to him before publicly releasing it and he is disappointed by its findings.

"It appears as if city administration didn't listen, or didn't understand, what shisha consumption is," Nanda said, adding Edmonton lounges provide a herbal product that does not contain tobacco.

"I am just a bit dumbfounded that this is the rationale provided by the city," he said.

The report said any bylaw amendments to allow shisha smoking indoors again would include conditions. No minors would be allowed in the separate, designated smoking areas, there would be no food or drink served in those areas, and lounges would have to work to eliminate any second-hand impacts on employees.

It referenced Alberta Health Services concerns about the effects of waterpipe smoke — regardless of whether it contains tobacco — on air quality and health for people in the lounges and perhaps even nearby units.

Nanda said his clients showed city officials they were willing to take any action to mitigate public health concerns, including installing top-of-the-line ventilation systems at their own cost.

The report may lead lounge owners to believe "that this wasn't a fair process and that there was an outcome in mind at the outset," he said.