Toronto is banning shisha smoking in lounges and restaurants, becoming the latest Canadian city to outlaw the hookah.
City councillors overwhelmingly endorsed the public-health-inspired ban Wednesday, rejecting a proposed compromise. The prohibition, which starts April, 2016, will affect an estimated 70 businesses that allow customers to use water pipes.
"Smoking is smoking," said licensing chairman Cesar Palacio, who supported the ban despite criticism that the city was infringing on cultural traditions.
Monir Mikhail, owner of a small hookah bar, Om Kalthoum Café, on Lawrence Avenue East, said that while business owners may be able to land on their feet, this is a harmful decision for his community. For many from the Middle East, smoking shisha – a mixture of herbal fruits that sometimes contains tobacco – is a social practice, he said.
"It's a part of our life, but the Canadian councillors cannot see it. They cannot feel it," he said. "These places give us back the atmosphere of back home that we are missing here."
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Alberta have already prohibited the public use of water pipes. The City of Vancouver expanded a bylaw banning indoor smoking in commercial establishments in 2007 to include herbal-based hookah smoking and it is being challenged by two lounge owners.
Several Ontario municipalities, such as Peterborough, Orillia and Barrie, have followed suit, but Ontario Health Ministry spokesman David Jensen said the province does not have plans to regulate herbal shisha.
He said Ontario is focused on ensuring tobacco products are not smoked indoors.
"The government understands that not all shisha contains tobacco, and that some people smoke shisha that does not contain tobacco. However, we also recognize that hookah use is a social or cultural activity for some people," Mr. Jensen said.
All provinces and territories have bans on smoking tobacco in indoor public spaces, but hookah lounges have avoided this restriction by offering non-tobacco herbal blends to customers.
Canadian Cancer Society spokesman Rob Cunningham said there is a misconception among young adults that herbal shisha isn't harmful. He said by allowing shisha in public places, that message is being reinforced.
"We need a response from federal and provincial governments," he said. "Toronto has a history of providing leadership with respect to its municipal smoking bylaws and we're counting on Toronto to … pave the way for provincial action."
Toronto's new bylaw follows a Board of Health report that discussed the negative impact on the health of workers, consumers and the public, as well as the growing social acceptance of the practice and its popularity among young adults.
Samira Mohyeddin, proprietor of the Banu restaurant on Queen Street West, stopped selling shisha when she heard about the health effects last year. She added that the hookahs were attracting underage clientele.
She said she isn't surprised the city is taking action.
"There were no concerns about this when it was something that Middle Easterners did," Ms. Mohyeddin said. "As it got more popular … that's when it became a health concern. No one cared when it was just confined to a specific ethnic group."