Skip to main content

Hamid Mohammadian smokes tobacco-free shisha from a hookah pipe inside the Persian Tea House in Vancouver on Thursday.Rafal Gerszak

The owners of Vancouver's last two hookah lounges are vowing to continue operating, as the city takes a tough line on imposing anti-smoking rules on the centuries-old tradition of Middle Eastern water pipes.

Vancouver is one of a handful of municipalities that prohibit herbal hookah use, but a growing number of Canadian cities such as Toronto are looking to follow suit.

All provinces and territories have legislation banning tobacco smoking in cafés, restaurants and public areas.

Hamid Mohammadian of the Persian Tea House and Abbas Abdiannia of Ahwaz Hookah House were charged in 2009 with violating the city's health bylaw – which bans all indoor smoking or burning of substances in commercial establishments – for allowing the use of hookah pipes inside their shops.

One month after losing their appeal of a Provincial Court ruling that upheld the city's anti-smoking rules – and being told they had 30 days to halt business operations – both owners have no intention of closing shop.

"I'm not closing. The city would have to kill me [before I] close business," said Mr. Mohammadian, who has been running his lounge on Davie Street for 17 years. "This is my life."

The controversy raises questions around at what point culture takes a back seat to public health in cities, and who ultimately decides.

A hookah is a pipe made of a glass bottle-like container and a water hose used to smoke shisha, a mixture of tobacco and herbal fruits, though it does not always contain tobacco.

Mr. Abdiannia and Mr. Mohammadian ran their hookah businesses with tobacco shisha for several years before the province banned tobacco smoking in commercial spaces in 1996, at which point both lounges switched to selling a tobacco- and nicotine-free herbal product.

In 2007, the city banned water-pipe smoking on commercial properties altogether, including herbal.

Lawyer Dean Davison, who represents both businesses, argued last year in court that hookah smoking was an important religious activity and cultural tradition within the communities of his clients, who are both Muslims.

The defence made the case that "for hundreds of years, smoking hookahs has been a central way in which Muslims come together to discuss and reflect on many subjects" and that banning hookah smoking in their cafes infringed on Mr. Abdiannia and Mr. Mohammadian's cultural rights.

The city argued that both tobacco and non-tobacco hookah smoking presented significant health risks for consumers and others through second-hand smoke, including respiratory problems, heart attacks and cancer. The trial and appeal judges ultimately agreed.

Rather than closing, the business owners will adapt their practices yet again – this time by adding a vaporizer attachment to their hookah pipes that will heat the shisha instead of charcoal – Mr. Davison said.

"It's a different heat source," Mr. Davison said. "They feel that that will be in compliant with the bylaw."

The city says the health bylaw includes vaping.

With the most recent decision, the men face a daily ticket of at least $250, prosecution and the possibility of an injunction if they don't comply with the bylaw.

Municipalities including North Vancouver, West Vancouver, and Port Coquitlam in B.C., and Peterborough and Barrie in Ontario have incorporated water pipes into their anti-smoking bylaws, and this year Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Alberta all introduced similar legislation at the provincial level.

Despite the loss, Mr. Mohammadian said he intends to allow hookah smoking in his shop until the practice is banned nationally.

"If [there's] one hookah [café] open in Canada, I [will stay] open," he said. "If everyone closes, I close."

Mr. Mohammadian added that he started his business when he came to Canada from Iran for people in his cultural community to gather, many of whom still come daily. "They support this business, they don't want to close this business," he said.

Many cities still allow the practice, such as Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa and Edmonton.

At least 60 Toronto businesses offer hookah use on their premises, according to the city's board of health. Last month, the board presented a report to council urging the city to address the health risks of hookah use in Toronto commercial businesses by prohibiting the practice altogether, and called on the province to introduce legislation that would ban any water-pipe smoking "in all restaurants, bars, entertainment establishments, and patios, regardless of whether the substance being smoked is tobacco based or non-tobacco based shisha."

Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, said many people underestimate the health effects of hookah smoking because of its sweet taste and aroma and lack of health warning labels.

"Second-hand smoke is second-hand smoke," he said, "[Hookah smoke] contains fundamentally the same toxins and cancer causing substances as you find in cigarette second-hand smoke. It's burning."

Mr. Cunningham said that regardless of hookah smoking's cultural history, employees and patrons in public places should not be exposed to harm.

"Smoking [cigarettes] in Canada used to be a very cultural activity and the culture has changed," he said. "People can still smoke hookah at home if they want to."