Shisha scaremongering: a load of hubble-bubble

Perhaps those panicking about the British trend for this Middle Eastern pastime should chill out with the pipe themselves.

Rania Hafez

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Topics Politics

Shisha smoking is a pleasant, social experience, which has been an important feature of social life in the Middle East for centuries. It’s little surprise, then, that people in the UK are warming to shisha bars in considerable numbers. What took us so long?, you might ask. Equally, however, at a time when the government and self-appointed ‘experts’ insist on treating us like naughty children, it’s unsurprising that there are now attempts to clamp down on these bars.

The term ‘bar’ here, of course, is a bit of a misnomer, as shisha bars are not usually licensed for alcohol. They are simply open-air spaces, sometimes covered with an awning, where customers sit around drinking soft drinks and smoking the ‘Hubble Bubble’ water-pipe, where a combination of flavoured molasses and tobacco is gently heated by coal, with the smoke filtered through water in what are often beautiful glass globes.

The most recent missive against the shisha was launched last week by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in a report to coincide with No Smoking Day. The BHF claimed, ‘the number of shisha bars has rocketed by 210 per cent since the year the smoking ban came into force. The figures show there were 179 known shisha bars in 2007 compared with 556 now.’ It denounced the proliferation of shisha cafés across the country, taking place despite the smoking ban in public places, warning that ‘under the romance and heady smells lies a familiar killer that we want people to be aware of’. It was followed by the usual scaremongering headlines in local and national media outlets such as ‘Blackburn revealed as the shisha capital of the north’ and several BBC news items, where anti-smoking campaigners name-and-shame other towns in the English midlands and north-east.

The insidious twist in this new campaign is that rather than trying to convince smokers of the negative effects of smoking, it is actually seeking restrictions on the outlets themselves. In language reminiscent of the era of prohibition, the news reports whip up a froth of hyperbole with dramatic claims about the increasing numbers of shisha cafés coupled with calls by leading health and community figures for urgent action to be taken. It seems that it only takes four shisha cafés in Derby, seven in Glasgow and 14 in Blackburn to deem them a plague threatening to ruin the health of these towns’ inhabitants.

This new tactic masks two important things: firstly the lack of credible scientific evidence linking shisha smoking to increased incidence of serious diseases and, secondly, the increasing trend to criminalise normal behaviour.

The only study that attempted to measure the possible ill effects of shisha smoking took place in the USA in 2005. Its most famous claim was that smoking a shisha continuously for one hour was equivalent to smoking over 100 cigarettes. This claim, and the study itself, was subsequently refuted by several evaluations, criticising the report’s methodology and findings. Yet those questionable claims – and the headline ‘100 cigarette’ figure in particular – are still being bandied about as ‘scientific evidence’ of the dangers of shisha smoking.

Even more worrying than these questionable statistics, however, is the clamour for restrictions that essentially seek to criminalise normal adult behaviour. The call to ‘limit’ shisha outlets is nonsensical as well as dangerous. On a very simple level, who is to say how many is too many cafés? Surely it should be up to market forces to decide that? If there is sufficient demand for the shisha bars, why not let their numbers bloom?

Given the dire state of the economy and the well-documented social tensions in our cities and towns, shisha cafés have rejuvenated many a dull high street and depressed inner-city area. Boarded up city-centre premises have received a new lease of life as buzzing trendy meeting places where young people and some older ones congregate and socialise. Over the gentle gurgling of the water-pipe, the art of conversation, long feared to be dying out, is reviving.

Shisha bars are helping café culture to finally take root in the UK. And it is not restricted to a particular gender, class or ethnicity. Take a stroll around the shisha outlets in any of the towns and you will find men and women from a cross-section of the local community enjoying a smoke and a chat. Groups of Hijabi girls puff away beside gay couples; manual workers sit alongside well-to-do professionals; and young university students vie for tables with older punters. Eavesdrop and you will find the conversation ranging from the Arab Spring, through to the economic downturn and the latest Premier League fixtures.

We should welcome the rise of shisha bars in the UK, and the social benefits that come with them. Perhaps the killjoys citing dodgy stats and panicking about this trend would benefit from chilling out with a shisha and partaking in this exciting new café culture themselves.

Rania Hafez is director of Muslim Women in Education.

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Topics Politics