Hookah lounges scramble after shisha ban upheld by Ontario’s top court

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Courtesy of Globe and Mail

After five years of deliberation, Amad Bani opened his hookah lounge in February this year and named it Lighthouse Shisha. He carefully decorated the inside with lights to make sure it was a place customers felt at ease in and signed a 15-year lease.

He knew a citywide prohibition on shisha lounges was looming, but with steps being taken to legalize marijuana in the country, Mr. Bani said he believed there was no chance it would survive in court. He was shocked and had trouble expressing his thoughts when he heard the news that the hookah ban did survive.

“We have to turn the place into something, otherwise I’m in trouble,” Mr. Bani said. “I have five kids to feed; I would have to sell my house.”

Mr. Bani said he is in a better situation than many of the other 70-plus shisha lounge owners in the city because he has a Plan B to start a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Lighthouse Shisha is one of the many hookah spots that will have to shut down or transform because of the Toronto bylaw to ban the use of water pipes in all city-licensed establishments. The law survived a challenge at Ontario’s top court on Tuesday, which means business can now be subjected to costly penalties if they do not comply.

The ban applies to the use of a hookah, which is a water pipe used to smoke shisha, a product that can sometimes contain tobacco but not always.

The city had voted to pass the bylaw on April 1, 2016, but agreed not to enforce it until the Ontario Court of Appeal reached a conclusion. The three-judge panel upheld a lower court decision, rejecting lounge owners’ arguments that the city was putting them out of business and going over its boundaries.

With the judgment being made, business owners now risk tickets, summonses or a hearing before a licence tribunal – which holds the power to revoke business licenses.

“We did the background scientific research on it and the science informed the policy,” said Councillor Joe Mihevc, chairman of Toronto’s board of health. “It is important for the simple reason that it is health protective.”

Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society, said the decision was “an important victory for public health.”

“Employees and customers should not be exposed to toxic and cancer-causing substances found in secondhand hookah smoke,” said Mr. Cunningham. “We strongly support the Toronto hookah bylaw and its health purpose.”

Mr. Cunningham added that five provinces and other municipalities in Ontario have already banned all water-pipe smoking. He said it’s becoming a global issue as countries such as Jordan, Turkey and parts of Saudi Arabia have also prohibited hookahs in restaurants and cafes.

The city will work with businesses to make their transition to other services easier, Mr. Mihevc said.

“Some places are restaurants as well, so if they say we need a month to get rid of the hookah-lounge portion of the restaurant then we will say we will give you a month,” he explained. Since April, 2016, he added, the city has been educating businesses about the ban and the effect it would have on their establishments.

Many of the shisha lounge owners in the city, however, were surprised at the court’s decision and some hadn’t even heard that a conclusion had been reached.

When Theva Sri – co-owner at Shisha&Co – first heard that hookah lounges would no longer be allowed in Toronto, he was at a loss for words. Quickly regaining his composure, he pushed forward to focus more on his shisha delivery business.

“There are so many shisha places in Toronto with so many employees, it will affect their jobs,” Mr. Sri said. “I thought about this happening in the future so I made a backup plan for myself because it’s business and anything could happen, but many others didn’t.”

Through his retail, delivery and catering business, Mr. Sri, who has been operating his lounge for two years, said he is already making $300 to $400 a day. With more attention, he expects he could increase profit on that business – especially since people will soon have less access to shisha in Toronto.

Ryan Zigler, the lawyer for the lounge owners who had launched the appeal in Toronto, said he will discuss with his clients on whether they want to challenge Toronto’s ban at the Supreme Court of Canada.

“I’m sure they were very disappointed,” he said. “One of the impacts for hookah lounges is that many will shut down and for some it means losing their life savings.”

Mr. Zigler is also representing a group of lounges that are challenging a similar ban in Peel Region. Peel officials had been waiting for a ruling in the Toronto case and will now schedule a court hearing. The region’s bylaws include a ban against the use of water pipes in both licensed businesses and enclosed public places.

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