Hookah Lounges Thrive

Hookah Lounges Thrive

Nowadays, hookah lounges are common sights across the main streets of the capital. In fact, Addis Ababa is witnessing an explosion of hookah bars, as well as shops that sell glass pipes and smoking wares. As a result, the consumption of hookah, locally known as shisha, is also rapidly expanding in Addis and other towns across the country, exposing people to health related risks. Although the government is trying to reduce the use of hookah by closing lounges that offer the service and passing laws, nothing seems able to arrest their spread, as EBR’s Samson Berhane reports.

On a weekday evening at around 9:30pm, Black Pearl Bar and Restaurant, a lounge located in Bole District, near Bole Secondary and Preparatory School is packed with more than two dozen customers. There was at least one hookah, locally known as shisha, on each of the bar’s 14 tables. It opened last year and has attracted a diverse clientele; most of the bar’s hookah customers, including Betelhem Berhanu, are between the ages of 20 and 40.

Betelhem, 27, comes to the bar at least once a week. When EBR met her, she and her friends were smoking flavored tobacco, which is available in various flavors such as apple, orange and mint, from the same pipe. The group frequents Black Pearl because they find it convenient for smoking hookah. “Although I go to other bars sometimes, I prefer Black Pearl, mostly because it is close to where I work,” she explained.

In recent times, Addis Ababa, whose urban population grows by five percent every year, has witnessed an explosion of bars that provide hookah alongside food and drinks, as well as shops that sell glass pipes and smoking wares. In fact, there are at least five lounges that provide hookah within a 200-metre radius of Black Pearl.

At least three quarters of the bars and lounges between Atlas Hotel and Bole High School offer hookah to their customers. According to an assessment conducted by the government between February and April 2017 in Woreda 3 of Bole District, 24 bars, as well 35 residential houses were found providing shisha.

Each bar, which buys the shisha equipment for around ETB1,800, designates certain employees to assist customers who come to smoke; they far outnumber customers who don’t. EBR conducted an assessment which revealed there are around three times more customers in hookah bars than in bars that don’t provide shisha.

This reality is confirmed by business insiders. “We suffered losses for almost six months when we first opened because other bars were offering customers shisha,” a senior manager at Black Pearl told EBR. “Ever since we start providing it too, our luck changed.” Some employees at Black Pearl estimated that the number of customers has increased five-fold since shisha was introduced.

This points to the growing popularity of hookah among young, middle class urbanites. There are currently over three million tobacco users in Ethiopia, accounting for a third of the adult population, according to the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI).

“Demand is clearly on the rise. More customers want to see hookah on menus,” says a senior manager at Black Pearl. “It is not surprising to see bars take market opportunities into consideration, like in any other business.”

Prices for a hookah bowl range from ETB150 to ETB200 in bars, while small houses that provide hookah and khat in various villages sell it for between ETB20 and ETB100 depending on the volume and location.

However, the growing use of hookah among urban residents in Ethiopia brings up health concerns as well. A study conducted by the American Lung Association discovered that a typical hour-long hookah smoking session is equivalent to taking in 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from smoking a single cigarette.

Hookah smoking is also a growing custom among youths globally. Nearly 100,000 young people start smoking it every day around the world, one quarter of whom are under the age of 10, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). This rising trend has been reported in different countries, with a prevalence ranging from five percent in North America to 34Pct in Asia. The perception of hookah as being safer than cigarettes has contributed to its popularity, although this contradicts the findings of many organizations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, water pipes could be more dangerous that cigarettes because people tend to inhale them deeply for longer periods.

According to some accounts, the practice of smoking hookah has its origins in Asia, on the Indian sub-continent and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Various historical accounts suggest that it was invented in India by a physician named Hakim Abul-Fath as a less harmful method of tobacco use, while other studies suggest that it was first used in South Africa, Persia, Ethiopia and other countries.

More than an estimated 100 million people worldwide smoke hookah, according to the WHO. Outside of cultural acceptance, other factors for its popularity include easy availability, attractive designs and flavoured aromatic tobacco, according to a study by Ziauddin University entitled “Knowledge, Attitude and Perception of Water Pipe Smoking (Shisha).”

As these bars gain popularity among consumers in Addis Ababa, concerns over their legality are growing as well. “Our existence depends on the will of the police and code enforcement bureaus,” explained a manager at Black Pearl. “There are no clear legal frameworks about the consumption of hookah.”

Following Parliament’s ratification of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2014, the Ethiopian Food, Medicine & Healthcare Administration and Control Authority (FMHACA) drafted a directive to regulate a broad category of tobacco products such as hookah. The directive forbade the manufacturing, import, distribution and sale of flavored hookah tobacco with the intention of preventing the attractive effect it has on children, and was approved in 2015.

Nonetheless, this has not arrested the widespread contraband trade observed in the hookah market. It is normal to find flavored tobacco, which is sold at ETB60 a pack for 50 grams, in kiosks and other retail outlets, despite the ban by the Authority.

In addition, hookah pipes are also available for as low as ETB400 at retail shops around Anwar Mosque in Merkato. While such factors have contributed to the growth of hookah consumption, it has been a headache for the government, which is striving to reduce the use of tobacco products. Close to 1,000 people die due to tobacco-related illness in Ethiopia every year, according to EPHI.

“The hookah bars, as well as retail outlets have proven difficult to control,” stated Alemtsehay Paulos, deputy head of Addis Ababa Food, Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority, mentioning that the Authority raided and shutdown 150 houses and bars for offering hookah.

Last year, five bars, Jubilee, DC Lounge, Sunset, VIP and Robio, were closed, and more than a thousand shisha pipes confiscated by the government. However, this didn’t slow other lounges down. “Most bars offer hookah at night, but since our inspectors aren’t allowed to work at night it is difficult to find them,” said Alemtsehay. “Even if they do work at night, there is no overtime payment system in place for inspectors.”

The limited capacity of government institutions, coupled with a lack of a clear legal framework to regulate hookah lounges and bars, have left the business exposed to corruption and unfair competition, according to business insiders.

Renowned bar and restaurant, Bemnet, which is surrounded by hookah lounges, can be taken as a showcase. Located in Bole District, Bemnet has seen its customer numbers decline drastically over the past 12 months, while its neighbours have experienced the opposite. “The people who smoke shisha in these lounges are adults, so it does not make sense to penalize them. If the government wants to ban hookah, a standardized law should be legislated. Otherwise, it would expose businesses that do not provide hookah to unfair competition,” said Tamiru Birega, a manager of the Bole branch of Beemnet.

The senior manager of Black Pearl shares Tamiru’s sentiment. “I was even forced to cut employees before I started offering hookah to my customers,” he says.

To the surprise of many, hookah bars do often issue receipts to their customers for shisha, making the government a beneficiary from something which is classed as illegal. Yet, the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority (ERCA) says it is not aware of the problem. “Our mandate doesn’t go beyond checking that businesses are issuing receipts as per the law of the country. As we are not authorized to inspect such establishments, it is not easy to see whether they are offering hookah or not,” said Ephrem Mekonnen, communications director of ERCA.

The item’s designation on the receipt is often changed by the bar, disguised as anything from food, to juice, to cocktails. That also makes it difficult to regulate the bars, according to the Authority.

Taking such factors into account, almost three years ago, FMHACA, in collaboration with the Office of the Attorney General, start drafting a new proclamation to license businesses engaged in hookah trading, including the shisha lounges popping up across the capital. The law would allow the Authority to conduct random checks, and revoke the licenses of those that violate the standards and requirements stated in the bill.

However, a later disagreement between a legal expert from the Attorney General’s office and FMHACA over hookahs broke out and resulted in an amendment of the bill. “After a long discussion that spanned almost six months, we finally agreed to keep hookah illegal and dropped the original plan of licensing hookah lounges,” explained Dagim Alemayehu, a legal expert at FMHACA, remarking that violating the law would result in a prison sentence, or fines depending upon the degree of the offences.

According to Dagim, the newly drafted bill, which is now awaiting the approval of the Council of Ministers, would give FMHACA the mandate to shut down businesses involved in the sale of hookah, with an intention of minimizing the harm that tobacco substances could have on the population.

If the new law is approved by the Council and legislated by the Parliament, Ethiopia would be the fourth east African country, after Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya, to impose a hookah ban. But until that becomes a reality, hookah lounges continue to please customers like Betelhem, while exposing them to health related risks.

6th Year . June 16 2018 . No.62


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