'I'm going to go bankrupt:' Edmonton shisha venue owners urge councillors to rethink proposed ban

Owners of Edmonton shisha venues say a proposed ban would destroy their businesses while an Ottawa lawyer says it also violates their charter rights.

Ottawa lawyer says proposed ban violates charter rights of owners and customers

Ertale Lounge co-owner Aklilu Mengiste says a ban on shisha would ruin him financially and leave his employees jobless. (CBC News)

Aklilu Mengiste says he invested his life savings to open a shisha lounge in Edmonton where community members could gather to relax and socialize.

But nine months after securing a licence and spending $220,000 on his business, he's shocked by the city's move to outlaw non-tobacco shisha in bars, restaurants and cafes.

Last Wednesday, city council's community and public services committee voted unanimously to extend restrictions in the tobacco smoking bylaw to waterpipes. Council will make a final decision in October.

Coun. Scott McKeen suggested Edmonton's estimated 44 hookah bars, lounges, restaurants and cafes could still survive, just as other businesses previously endured a ban on cigarette smoking.

My business is not even a year old. Who's going to compensate me? I'm going to go bankrupt- Aklilu Mengiste

But Mengiste is one of several owners who say they fear the ban would bring financial ruin. He won't be able to support his wife and five young children or keep up payments on his mortgage and line of credit, he said.

He questioned how the city could propose such a move so soon after issuing him a licence and urged councillors to rethink their position.

"My business is not even a year old. Who's going to compensate me? I'm going to go bankrupt," said Mengiste, who bought Ertale Lounge as a co-owner with money he saved up working as a driver and construction worker in Alberta after fleeing political persecution in Ethiopia. 

Mengiste wasn't the only one blindsided when councillors McKeen, Tony Caterina, Tim Cartmell, Ben Henderson and Mayor Don Iveson, who all sit on the committee, began discussing an outright shisha ban Wednesday.

Prior to that at the same meeting, two owners and a manager used their allotted time to address concerns of alleged violence and disorder at shisha bars, raised in a report from Edmonton police that was requested by McKeen in April.

But two additional documents focused on the health hazards of hookah pipes and pushed for an alignment with tobacco rules, and that's where councillors turned their attention.

'Cancer-causing agents'

According to a document from Alberta Health Services, the charcoal used to heat a hookah pipe produces high levels of carbon monoxide and cancer causing chemicals.

"In fact, both the main-stream and second-hand smoke produced by herbal shisa contained these known cancer-causing agents at levels equal to or greater than that of tobacco products," the April 2017 report says, noting Vancouver and Ottawa have banned indoor public use of non-tobacco waterpipes. Currently in Edmonton, herbal shisha must be tobacco-free.

After listening to presentations by business owners, McKeen, Henderson and Iveson said they thought disorder could be dealt with by law enforcement on a case-by-case basis. But what most concerned them was exposure to second-hand shisha smoke by workers and non-smoking customers.
Coun. Scott McKeen says the same arguments were made prior to tobacco restrictions but many bars, restaurants and coffee shops stayed open. (CBC)

Some bar owners argued the city already requires hookah lounges to install top-notch ventilation systems that cost between $75,000 to $100,000.

Plus, said Mengiste, customers choose to come to his establishment and the majority smoke shisha, as do his nine employees. 

"It's (the ban proposal) not protecting them. It will put them on the street," said Mengiste, adding owners and customers shouldn't be discriminated against for "doing what they believe."

The tradition of smoking shisha dates back centuries, originating in places such as India, Persia and Ethiopia.

In Edmonton, shisha venues often draw customers of African or Middle Eastern backgrounds who enjoy a hookah pipe  solo or among friends.

Charter challenge

After Ottawa implemented its ban in 2016, the traditional aspect of waterpipe smoking briefly became the basis of a constitutional challenge by Brian Mahmoud, who owned Lebanese Palace.
Lawyer Lawrence Greenspon predicts if a ban on shisha is enforced in Edmonton many hookah businesses would close. (CBC News)

In a recent interview, his lawyer Lawrence Greenspon told CBC News the bylaw infringed on Mahmoud's culture, which is protected under section 15 of the Charter and Rights and Freedoms.

Greenspan said unlike cigarette smoking, the tradition around shisha dates back hundreds of years. Customers come to "enjoy the cultural aspects of smoking shisha and getting together with other people who do likewise," he said.

"Everyone appreciates the health concerns that lie as a foundation of these bylaws but there has to be some consideration ... that  this is a cultural activity of an identifiable group of people in our population and it's certainly an infringement on that culture," said Greenspon.

He removed all his  shisha  pipes and his business went right down the tubes- Lawyer Lawrence Greenspon

In the end, Greenspon said his client couldn't afford to pursue the legal challenge after the bylaw was enforced. "He removed all his shisha pipes and his business went right down the tubes."

He predicted the regular enforcement of a future bylaw in Edmonton would have similar consequences for businesses. To "pretend otherwise" is not to have a good understanding that shisha is a "very important part of the experience," he said.

"I think those businesses are going to suffer tremendously and there's going to be a number of them that are going to have to close," said Greenspon.  

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar is based in Edmonton. She reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, policing and radicalization. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca