A group of public health advocates is calling on the Manitoba government to follow in the footsteps of other Canadian jurisdictions and permanently ban the sale and service of hookah at restaurants, bars and lounges.
Neil Johnston, president and chief executive officer of the Lung Association of Manitoba, said a decision by the province to close the legislative loophole that allows herbal shisha to be smoked in public spaces is long overdue.
A hookah is an instrument traditionally used to smoke shisha, a mixture of tobacco and molasses sugar or fruit.
Under normal circumstances, some Winnipeg restaurants operate as hookah lounges by offering customers the ability to smoke tobacco-free shisha. The smoking and vaping of tobacco in indoor public places is illegal across Canada.
As the public use of hookah is temporarily banned in Manitoba during the novel coronavirus pandemic, due to concerns over the risk of transmission of the virus, Johnston thinks the time for the province to act is now.
"It’s a logical point to say, ‘It’s a good time to take a look at your business model and see how you could operate without hookah,’" Johnston said.
The proposal has the support of members of other public health organizations, including the Manitoba Tobacco Reduction Alliance, Action on Smoking and Health, and Heart and Stroke Foundation. Similar bans are already in place in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Johnston said a loophole allowing establishments to serve herbal shisha exists in provincial legislation because "the regulations were developed before hookah" was common in Manitoba.
"We’re not saying people can’t use it in the privacy of their own home… Really, this comes down to a health issue. It’s a workplace safety issue. Whoever is in the establishment from an employment perspective is going to be exposed to the smoke," he said.
"It’s burning a combustible substance. It’s illegal to use tobacco-based smoking products in the hookah, but the herbal, non-tobacco products sort of fall in a loophole. But it’s still a plant-based material, you’re still burning it to smoke, it still has toxins."
Amanjot Singh Bajwa, co-owner of 7 Arabian Dreams (775 Corydon Ave.), said a full ban of hookah would be crippling for numerous businesses in Winnipeg.
"We will all shut down, we will all go bankrupt. It’s a hookah lounge, right? If they stop it, that means we’re going to have to shut down. In a bar, if they ban alcohol, that bar is obviously going to shut down. It’s the same with the hookah lounge," Singh Bajwa said in an interview.
"This is a tradition for the Middle East and even from India. People smoke, they sit at the table, they chat with their friends, they do their homework. We’re not forcing anyone to come here."
Johnston said he is sensitive to the cultural element at play when it comes to hookah, but nevertheless feels the public health argument trumps those concerns. He said he recognizes the ban would be difficult on businesses, which is why the sooner the province acts, the better.
"These folks are engaging in a legal business. The longer we wait, the more people are going to be investing in these businesses, so the harm against businesses will be even greater for the people making these personal investments," Johnston said.
"There is a cultural element to hookah... but the bottom line is: when you fill a room with smoke, it’s a health issue."
Establishments that offer hookah have frequently been the targets of Manitoba public health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic, totalling some $34,000 in fines since late May.
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