Can the hookah bar escape the long arm of the law when public places across India become smoke-free from October 2? The Union health ministry's directive, known as the Prohibition of Smoking in Public Places Rules 2008, regards cafes, restaurants and pubs as "public places". Unsurprisingly, restaurateurs and hoteliers are worried they will lose the smoking segment of their clientele. But owners of hookah bars and lounges in the capital remain unfazed. They say hookah tobacco contains a scant 0.5% nicotine. In other words, those who smoke a hookah are not really smoking and a hookah bar is not really a den of smokers! It is an important distinction, particularly because hookah bars and lounges are multiplying by the minute. As the new "in" thing for young people, it is seen to provide a new public space for tobacco consumption. Many believe it's also one of the biggest challenges to the health ministry's war on tobacco consumption. Research has shown that smoking would kill 10 lakh people in India annually by 2010. It's estimated that 40% of the health problems in India stem from use of tobacco. But the government seems almost blissfully unaware that a growing number of urban young Indians are taking to smoking the hookah. Union heath secretary Naresh Dayal says the smoking ban covers all types of tobacco consumption, not just cigarettes. But when asked about hookah bars, he says, "We will get it (hookah mixture) tested in the laboratories. If there is even minimal tobacco in it, we will take requisite action." The typical hookah mix is one-third tobacco and two-thirds flavourings. These may include molasses, dried fruit, honey and other ingredients. A single serving has a shelf-life of about 20 to 25 minutes and can cost anywhere between Rs 250 and 300. But that small percentage of tobacco does not mean the hookah is a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes. A recent study by the World Health Organization showed that a hookah session of a few hours has the same effect on your lungs as smoking 100 cigarettes. As the hookah smoke is cooled by its passage through water and is inhaled hard, it reaches further into the lungs. Other carcinogens, such as tar, heavy metals and carbon monoxide are inhaled with the smoke. Hookah smokers are at risk of lung, lip, tongue and bladder cancer. Dr Rakesh Mahajan, who is associated with World Lung Foundation, South Asia, says, "Tobacco is tobacco. You cannot nullify its danger with a smaller percentage. Even though hookah has just 0.5% of nicotine, it is equally harmful." He says that even though the cigarette has always been touted as a greater risk than the hookah, both are bad for the health. "Even passive smokers are at a great risk of inhaling carbon monoxide. How can one justify hookah smoking?" But the young are increasingly trying to do exactly that. Some say they smoke the hookah because it is in vogue. Others say the hookah's attraction lies in its antiquity as a tradition. Irwan, a young marketing executive, says it helps him realise his "Arabian night dreams". Sanya Khan, a regular at Maamouchee bar, argues that "the whole argument about smoking is restricted to cigarette-smoking, not hookahs." The status of the hookah bar after the October 2 smoking ban is further complicated by its lack of regulation. In the West, hookah lounges and cigar bars have managed to sidestep public smoking bans by obtaining special permits to allow smoking within the premises. They argue that smoking is the focus of activity in their businesses. But the Indian government cannot really ask the indigenous hookah bar to do the same because they also double up as restaurants or cafes, serving coffee, snacks and other drinks. Ruchir Kapoor, manager of Mocha, a hookah bar in Defence Colony, Delhi, says, "We do not require a special licence to provide a hookah." Mohinder, manager of another famous hookah lounge in Delhi's swish Vasant Vihar, says he can't imagine why he would need a licence as his restaurant permit "covers all" that the lounge serves. Not every hookah bar can rely on such sunshine prospects. At present, Delhi is the only Indian city that appears unconcerned about the hookah bar. In August 2008, Mumbai and Ahmedabad moved to take action against the hookah bar. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decided to use a little-known clause of the BMC Act to revoke hookah bar licences. The clause says anything served in an eatery should not be detrimental to health. But health secretary Dayal is vague on what, if anything, will be done about Delhi's hookah bars from next week. He says, "We did not have a law till now. Now that we have one, we will employ stringent measures to control this. Wait till October 2." Smokers at the hookah bars say they couldn't care less. Hookah-enthusiast Sanya Khan says she will buy herself a hookah "if the government puts a ban on hookah bars... at least I can relax with a hookah at home then."
6 months ago