Hookah parlours test city's smoking ban
From a distance, it's easy to spot the locations of the city's hookah parlours. They are the places where the crowds spill over onto the sidewalk on Friday and Saturday nights because there are too many people wanting to get in and not enough room.
They're also the only places where smoke still trickles out each time the door opens.
'This is my home,' says Matthew Dehagi, taking a deep, contented drag on his charcoal-lit pipe in the Persian Tea House cafe. 'I have no other place to go where I feel as comfortable, where I can see as many friends and make as many new friends.'
In the 1990s, Vancouver was at the forefront of smoking bans in restaurants and bars. Owners pleaded with committees and councils to forget about a bylaw that would ban smoking indoors saying it would have a devastating impact on businesses. But 10 years on, and with other Canadian municipalities following suit, the smoking ban has become commonplace, with few financial consequences.
So it is surprising that the issue is being revisited. A reversal of sorts took place last week after the city's three hookah parlours successfully argued that smoking was a cultural pastime for their customers.
Hookah, also known as shisha or nargeela, are popular in Arab countries and India. There are also rising numbers of smokers in North America, especially near college and university campuses.
It's easy to see why. Vancouver's hookah houses are decorated with comfortable sofas, deep lounging cushions and an atmosphere designed to keep customers lingering. Strong aromatic tea is brought to the tables by unobtrusive servers and large-stemmed. glass-based water pipes set on tables for communal smoking.
The city's director of regional health protection Nic Losito, says when Vancouver granted a reprieve to hookah parlours, it set a precedent. Smoke-free bylaws in the surrounding suburbs prohibit hookah smoking. 'By permitting them, even for a short term, it keeps Vancouver out of step with other local jurisdictions,' says Mr Losito.
By early next year, provincial regulations will likely mean hookah smoking will be prohibited, but Mr Losito is concerned that the city allowed the exemption at all.
Rob Cunningham, a policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, says there is no reason to give hookah parlours an exemption. 'Vancouver would be the first to create an exemption and that's not something we support,' he said. 'The concern is this will encourage establishments that don't currently offer water-pipe smoking to start offering it as a way to draw customers.' The city's two cigar lounges have also received an exemption.
Mr Cunningham says the good news is that the exemption in Vancouver is isolated and no other municipality in Canada is lobbying for more exemptions.
Parlour owner Abdolhamid Mohammadian, who came to Vancouver from Iran two decades ago, says he was always confident he could convince the city council to give hookah places like his Persian Tea House an exemption.
'This is Vancouver, and they understand this is a city where different cultures exist together and we learn from each other's cultures,' he said. 'All I did was explain this is my culture, and it makes my customers feel happy and at home here. That is enough.'