Ban on shisha smoking in bars proposed by Edmonton city council committee

Councillors propose banning shisha smoking in public and commercial spaces, bringing restrictions in line with tobacco smoking.

Councillors on committee unanimously vote to expand tobacco restrictions to cover shisha

A city council committee is proposing a ban on shisha smoking in bars and other public places. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

A city council committee is proposing banning shisha smoking in public places and commercial spaces like bars and lounges.

The move would affect up to 44 hookah bars, lounges and cafes in Edmonton.

On Wednesday, the community and public services committee unanimously passed a motion directing administration to prepare amendments to the city's public places bylaw.

The proposed rules would prohibit shisha and waterpipe smoking in public and commercial spaces by introducing restrictions in alignment with regulation of tobacco and potential regulations around cannabis smoking.

Committee members Scott McKeen, Ben Henderson, Tony Caterina, Tim Cartmell, and Mayor Don Iveson all voted in favour of the motion.

Prior to the vote, they spent the morning listening to presentations from anti-smoking advocates and owners of shisha lounges and restaurants.

The manager of Sahara Palace said a ban on shisha would significantly hurt business.

We have about 40 employees that work at Sahara. I think if we didn't have  shisha  in there we would knock off at least 75 per cent of them- Omar  Hagir , Sahara Palace

"We have about 40 employees that work at Sahara. I think if we didn't have shisha in there we would knock off at least 75 per cent of them," said Omar Hagir, who described Sahara as a place where customers study, work, play cards and attend family gatherings.

Hagir said ​it would be "unfair to shut it down completely" for businesses following the rules and meeting licensing requirements.  

"If people are coming to our establishment, I think they know they're coming to a place — the majority, it's probably 99 — that has shisha," said Hagir, adding it's a cultural pastime. "I have a Lebanese background and this is just something that's been forever ... It's kind of like a social gathering."

Mulugeta Tesfay, who owns Nyala Lounge, told the committee start-up costs to obtain a licence from the city range between $50,000 to $250,000. 

"That's issued by the city, so if shisha is banned, the city shouldn't provide a licence in the first place," said Tesfay, who will appear before a licensing committee on July 12 as city police seek to close his bar.

But anti-smoking advocate Les Hagen argued there is no safe level of exposure to second hand shisha smoke and workers need to be protected from the "toxic chemical." He said all forms of smoking should be banned in commercial spaces, including shisha smoking.

McKeen agreed, saying: "I think the public health evidence is irrefutable and therefore the occupational health concerns are dire."
Coun. Scott McKeen said the same financial concerns were raised during the debate to ban tobacco smoking in bars and lounges. (Lydia Neufeld/CBC)

McKeen said he recalled hearing the same arguments made by bars, restaurants and lounges prior to tobacco smoking being banned, with owners "coming in before council and saying 'You're going to destroy our business.' "

While McKeen admitted there were some consequences for businesses due to tobacco restrictions, in the end a lot of bars, lounges restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops stayed open.

Sahara could compete on its food alone, suggested McKeen.

Henderson said he couldn't see how the issue was any different from tobacco, given the second hand smoke concerns. 

"I don't know why shisha was left out of that, and that's my big question," said Henderson. "It's not about what someone does to themselves. It's about the effect they have on others. And in enclosed spaces, where there are people working who may or may not have a real choice about whether or not they can afford to give up that job, those are the concerns."

Earlier, Coun. Jon Dziadyk urged committee members to vote against the motion. While he is not a committee member, Dziadyk posted a blog later on Wednesday titled "Shisha (Hookah) Lounges Are Community Hubs That Should Be Celebrated, Not Banned."

He said equating shisha and cigarette smoking is not a fair comparison, noting the shisha in Edmonton venues is herbal, not a tobacco product. There are only 44 hookah venues in Edmonton, while there were many more bars, restaurants and coffee shops across the city where non-smokers had previously been exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke.

"I think that shisha is being smoked in safe environments where people understand what they're getting into," said Dziadyk. "I would encourage committee members to go to these establishments."

Outside the meeting, Dziadyk, said he thinks a lot of people don't fully understand what happens in shisha bars.

"If you're going to make a decision that's going to affect so many Edmontonians and base it on crime issues, as well as health issues, when we've proven that there's not real crime issues any more than you would see at typical alcohol-serving establishments, I think that if you're going to make those decisions you should be more aware as to what's happening," he said.



About the Author

Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca