Confessions of a recovering shisha-holic
Is it time to emerge from this ‘halal haze’ and acknowledge a ticking health time-bomb in our communities? Nazneen Mehta reports.
Everyone remembers their first time.
Mine was more than ten years ago in a Lebanese cafe on Edgeware Road, London, and as the halal haze and smell of sweet tobacco enveloped me in its warm embrace, I was undone.
For a couple of years after that, every weekend would end with hummus and hookah with my urban family into the early hours. This despite never having smoked a cigarette.
I then moved to West Yorkshire, at a time when the hookah bar culture was burgeoning, and my passion for the pipe deepened.
To misquote Joey from friends – fruit flavoured tobacco and molasses? Good. Company of friends? Good. What’s not to like?
Eight years, hundreds of hookah sessions, one piece of smoke free legislation and one personal epiphany later, and there’s plenty not to like.
Not least the alarming research and statistics from all manner of health experts, some of whom claim that one single hookah session can be equivalent to smoking between 100 and 200 normal cigarettes.
But then again, they WOULD say that wouldn’t they? After all, they are probably secretly sponsored by the tobacco giants who are threatened by the very existence and economic potential of this burgeoning subculture and legitimate business in boom. Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?
The British Heart Foundation – ok, so they are a pretty good authority on these things – has claimed that in one puff of shisha you inhale the same amount of smoke as you’d get from a whole cigarette. So, in one session, you could realistically puff your way through 40 normal tabs or more.
Elsewhere, research has shown that the risk of lung cancer is magnified EIGHT-fold when you smoke shisha regularly.
In one disturbing development earlier this year, a 20-year-old Australian woman was rushed to hospital suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning after spending one hour a day smoking shisha.
Can we really continue to ignore this ticking health time-bomb, the real effects of which will likely show themselves in 20 or 30 year’s time?
Or should the self-righteous brigade just shut up and go indulge in another, lesser evil like a fatty burger or a pint of Guinness?
As clearly as I remember my first puff, I also remember the moment that changed my shisha habits forever.
I suffered a particularly bad shisha ‘hangover’ – the ‘halal hangover’ as some might want to call it. The next day I had pains in my chest like I had never experienced before. Something just clicked, and the pipe passion within me evaporated – as if in a puff of smoke.
I went through the usual phases of withdrawal; then becoming one of those annoying, sanctimonious anti-smoking types; and then settling into a new routine of just not going out when the ‘out’ was a smoke filled room.
But, when it comes down to it, what really is wrong with it? After all, it’s about so much more than who blows the biggest smoke rings.
For those who don’t want to go to the pub, and are bored with bowling and eating out and the cinema – or just want something to do after all those things – it’s a great place to hang out with your friends until the early hours,
There’s none of the rowdiness associated with booze fuelled antics at licensed venues. It’s not as bad as ‘pubbing or clubbing’, although your mum probably still wouldn’t approve. But it’s halal(ish) so you – and she – can live with it.
Moreover, the shisha culture is not about being anti-social and anti-integration, it’s quite the opposite.
Where else can a group of diverse friends sit until 3am talking about global politics and watching the footy, without the smell and potential nuisance of the booze factor?
One pal recently suggested that for many fans, there may be a deep cultural connection with the hookah pipe, linking back thousands of years to India and the Persian and Ottoman Empires.
As our communities have become more affluent and travelled further afield in the world, we have actually reconnected with something that is part of a shared history.
It’s probably no coincidence that such huge swathes of the shisha smoking brigade are Muslims of South Asian Heritage.
Just as the wider world pontificates on ‘Muslimness’ and identity and our place in this fraught global village, could it be that a section of the ummah (small ‘u’ deliberate’) has found solace in a cultural habit that is possibly the only one that they share in common?
In a world where 1.6 billion Muslims are often treated as one big homogenous mass, maybe the shisha pipe is the only way in which we can tell the world to stick its views in a pipe – and WE’LL smoke it.
So what if we are inhaling dangerous levels of toxins? Everyone who is exposing themselves to it is doing so willingly.
Let’s not forget, the vast majority of shisha establishments are operating legally, at least those which abide by the 50 per cent ventilation rule.
Whilst mulling over this column, I ventured to a shisha ’emporium’ in Leeds for the first time in several years. The atmosphere was relaxed. Big screens played film clips and a familiar sounding bhangra infused ditty was playing away in the background.
We could all HEAR each other talk, a great start.
Ok, so I had to fork out £10 for a pipe that I wasn’t even smoking. But then, I entered the game knowing the rules.
I asked my companions and other smokers what the enduring allure of the ‘hubble bubble’ was. Most admitted they are aware of the health risks – of course they are, these are intelligent professionals. Among my own group was a doctor, two public sector workers and two youth workers.
“It was just there, so we did it. It was a fad,” said one smoker. “It started in Bradford about eight years ago with a nice restaurant with a separate shisha section, all before the smoking ban.”
“There’s no fighting, no alcohol. It’s an alternative to the pub, a place to go and chill out. There isn’t anywhere else to go late at night,” said another.
“It’s a choice I make,” added a third. “I know it’s a vice, but it’s the lesser of several evils. I know the health risks, but there’s not a lot else going on.”
One person even suggested that he’d be willing to pay an extra tax to cover healthcare costs of the effects of shisha, but only if that surcharge applied to the obesity epidemic, alcohol related illnesses and other chronic, apparently preventable strains on the NHS.
Additional taxation on the shisha industry itself was also mooted.
It was pointed out that people who drink alcohol are not asked similar questions and “alcohol is a bigger killer than shisha smoking will ever be”.
The general consensus also seemed to be that there is some wilful “sweeping under the carpet” by the authorities of those establishments which might be teetering on the edge of legality.
But, as one commenter pointed out, perhaps the authorities would prefer some of the young people who frequent these venues to be chilling out in closed spaces rather than (potentially) causing havoc on the streets of Leeds or Bradford.
While prosecutions of shisha bar owners for flouting regulations have been steady, they certainly haven’t caused a major dent in the number of venues,
In fact, for every one that closes down, two more seem to spring up in hookah hotspots like Leeds, Bradford and Manchester.
The health messages ARE trickling through slowly – but are the authorities as a whole just playing lip service to the issue?
A current ongoing West Yorkshire wide ‘niche tobacco’ awareness campaign focuses heavily on the harmful effects of shisha, although the effects of smokeless and chewing tobacco are also highlighted,
One recent report to a Leeds City Council licensing committee said that “water-pipe smoking is a growing issue with significant health implications for the city”, however it noted that current legislation is just not good enough and “when prosecutions are taken, fines are generally low and do not discourage premises owners from operating”.
The report pointed out that there is a common misconception that shisha smoking is exempt from the smoke-free legislation.
So, is it the case that shisha is becoming – or has become already – another stick for the establishment to beat Muslims AND smokers with?
The National Association of Shisha Bar Owners certainly seems to think so.
It sets out its stall very clearly on its website, boldly accusing lawmakers of “putting 3,000 years of culture under attack” from “prohibitionist interference”.
An expert quoted by the organisation says “politicised shoddy science from antismoking experts” is to blame. That position hasn’t changed for several years.
But surely they can’t be suggesting we have one law for one group, and one for another? That kind of anti-democratic move would play into the hands of the far right.
The argument is often that shisha bars should be exempt from the smokefree public places legislation, which has been in existence since 2006. But MPs already voted down a motion to allow private members’ clubs to be exempt.
And recently, the smokefree legislation in the UK was EXTENDED to include smoking in cars when under 16s are present,
It seems that in the eternal clash of the tobacco Titans and smokefree crusaders, the latter are winning the battle if not the war.
The wider health implications of shisha smoking for large sections of our community – and perhaps for a whole generation – cannot be ignored.
But when we choose to live in a society where there are around 6,500 alcohol-related deaths every year, and where one expert recently described obesity as being a bigger national threat than terrorism, ‘to shisha or not to shisha’ is a choice that we must be allowed to make ourselves, for better or worse.
Perhaps it will take a little more time before we can emerge together from this halal haze. Let’s just hope it’s not when we’ve run out of time.