Editorial: Sheesha showdown

I’m what I’d like to call an ambivalent smoker.

By that I mean I smoke the occasional bowl of sheesha with friends–flavoured molasses tobacco — at one of the several cafes downtown. I’m not the only one, as these places are near-capacity most of the time. Most people who smoke sheesha do it as a social pastime and are hardly the pack-a-day smokers targeted by the Smoke-Free Calgary ad campaigns. Sheesha bars provide those of us who want to keep our homes smoke-free with a place to indulge, but the city’s recent crack-down on sheesha bars may signal their demise.

Bylaw inspectors fined Ice Classics sheesha cafe $1,000 for continuing to allow patrons to smoke. Although Ice Classics will continue to operate as a private club in the future, this greatly changes the cafe’s dynamic and just isn’t feasible for others, such as Cafe Mediterranean. While eliminating smoking in bars and clubs will be seen as a positive step 10 years from now, what’s being overlooked is the potential elimination of a burgeoning industry–an industry that greatly contributes to Calgary’s social culture.

The largest argument offered by the smoke-free lobby is that public smoking of tobacco is unhealthy for uninvolved parties. While there is an undeniable health risk to the workers of such establishments, the vast majority of people who go to sheesha bars are there to smoke sheesha. Rallying against second-hand smoke is pointless when 99 per cent of patrons in an establishment wilfully inhale first-hand smoke, and go to said establishment with that intent in mind.

When imposing wide-reaching laws like the anti-smoking bylaw, City Hall needs to be tolerant, making exceptions for businesses garnering over 60 per cent of their revenue from tobacco sales, and eschewing an “all or nothing” zero-sum attitude as to the success or failure of the legislation. That said, businesses supporting smoking should attempt to meet the bylaw half-way, whether that be to exclusively sell tobacco-free herbal sheesha (currently banned, despite containing zero tar and nicotine), or by only offering smoking after certain hours for patrons of legal age. One concern non-smokers may have is that all bars will declare themselves sheesha cafes in order to allow smoking, but this could be solved by requiring businesses to decide between selling alcohol or sheesha, not both. These are quick, obvious ideas. With tolerance, cooperation and innovation between the government and local businesses, even better solutions that accommodate everyone can be reached.

Smoking has existed for centuries and is as heavily ingrained in our culture as drinking. Yes, second-hand smoke poses health problems and heavy smokers are prone to more health problems than you can shake a stick at. However, taking a heavy-handed, prohibitionist stance just breeds animosity, confuses the issue, and gets us nowhere.

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