Toronto hookah lounges go up in smoke

As of April, at least one city councillor will have to smoke in his garage instead


When Ilan Kritzer opened his west end hookah lounge in 2009, he didn’t expect the heart of his business to go up in smoke six years later. A vote, however, by Toronto city council on November 4 has made the Sheesha Lounge – and more than 60 other establishments like it across the city – illegal. Starting April 1, 2016, hookah smoking at all licensed businesses will be banned.

“Unfortunately, it’s making the city look like a nanny state,” Kritzer says. “A total ban is not what should’ve been done. It should have been regulated, with procedures put in place, warnings, a whole set of regulations for the business rather than banning it.”

A prohibition on indoor hookah smoking has been in the works for months. Earlier this year, the Board of Health recommended to city council a ban on hookah pipes in Toronto businesses.

Their concern was based on a report written by Dr. David McKeown, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, which stated that “hookah use poses health risks for users and those exposed to second-hand smoke. Additionally, hookah use in licensed establishments undermines the success of the SFOA [Smoke-Free Ontario Act] because it contributes to the social acceptability of smoking in public places.”

Yesterday, city councillors voted 34 to 3 in favour of the ban. Councillor Joe Cressy supported the motion and says that the ban builds on Toronto’s 20-year-long effort to reduce the harms associated with smoking.

“With the restrictions we’ve placed on hookah establishments, what we are doing is not just improving and mitigating the health risks, both for those who smoke and those who work there, but also, we’re continuing the practice of stopping the normalization of smoking behavior in our city,” he says.

Councillors Giorgio Mammoliti, Jim Karygiannis and Denzil Minnan-Wong were the only ones to vote against the motion.

“We don’t often move a report that eliminates any one industry,” Mammoliti says. “I think we’ve effectively done that with this report without the understanding of how much money we lose as a city and more importantly, how we’d replace that money.”

The York West councillor, who wanted to see the industry regulated rather than banned, says that a visit to a hookah lounge with Karygiannis over the summer helped solidify his position on the issue.

“I didn’t smoke it myself, but I saw what it was about,” he says. “It’s truly a cultural experience.”

Karygiannis, who smokes cigars and shisha regularly, has been a staunch supporter of hookah lounges for years. He says that he often visits Aladdin’s Palace just two blocks from his home in his ward of Scarborough-Agincourt. He’s there several times a month with friends and compares it to going for coffee.

“This is an intrusion against a culture,” he says. “If I choose to smoke and I choose to go to these lounges, what business is it for city hall to say, ‘Don’t go.’ If I choose to work there, what right do people have to say, ‘You can’t work there.’ I was surprised by the vote.”

Karygiannis suspects that the ban will likely drive the industry underground. He also warns that some small businesses might revert to using tobacco shisha, which is known to be hazardous to health, over herbal shisha. Karygiannis argues that for people addicted to smoking, hookah lounges offering herbal shisha are the safest option.

“The only smoke that could be hazardous to your health is the charcoal when they light it, but the vapour that comes out is not harmful,” he says. “We have places in Canada where people who are addicts go and shoot up, and this is nothing else but an addiction. If you smoke, you’re addicted to smoke, so instead of driving it underground, we should have places people can go and participate in their habit.”

Cressy disagrees. He says that medical opinion on the health risks associated with hookah smoking is unanimous.

“Researchers have found concerning levels of air pollutant particles in hookah use,” he warns. “The health research is crystal clear that it results in unacceptably high, in some cases hazardous, levels of CO2 and these are cancer-causing chemicals. We heard the same argument 20 years ago when we moved on cigarettes.”

The Trinity-Spadina councillor also points to research showing that the predominant growth of hookah-lounge users in Canada is young people.

“We had a youth-smoking survey that was conducted in 2012 and 2013, and it found that 38 per cent of Ontario students believe that hookah use is less harmful than smoking cigarettes. This is part of the normalization of smoking behavior,” Cressy says.

With the emergence of Toronto vapour lounges, where medical marijuana users can legally smoke weed in a social setting, Kritzer wonders if the hookah ban is one smoking industry trying to cannibalize another.

“What is the other agenda?” he asks. “Is it that the vape lounges opening up want a monopoly on people smoking indoors? Or is it something else? It cannot be health because there is just no evidence to support it. There has to be an ulterior motive.”

In the meantime, Kritzer plans to slowly make alterations to his business. The Sheesha Lounge will be closed for several months while the 8,000 square-foot space is transformed into a full-fledge restaurant next spring. He also says that there will likely be some layoffs to his 18 staff members during that time.

After April 1, 2016, Karygiannis won’t legally be allowed to smoke inside Aladdin’s Palace, but he already has a game plan.

“I’ve got tobacco at home and I’ll do it at home in my garage. I’ve got all the equipment and I’ve got tobacco and molasses,” he says. “A lot of this will be going underground. I have contacts within the Middle Eastern community and people that smoke, and we are saddened by what’s happened.”  

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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