Hookah bar owners in Burnaby fuming over proposed ban on all types of indoor smoking

·3 min read

Oula Hamadi owns hookah bar Kayan Shisha Cafe in Burnaby but she's not sure for how much longer.

Hamadi said if a proposed bylaw forbidding the smoking of any substances inside businesses passes, it would snuff out 11 Burnaby hookah bars like hers.

"They really don't care that we have families who are being supported from that business," Hamadi said.

In a report, City of Burnaby staff note that while the province regulates indoor smoking of tobacco and vaping products, a "gap" exists for non-tobacco substances.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Hamadi said Kayan and other hookah bars sell tobacco-free shisha — a flavoured molasses mixture — for customers to smoke, which remains legal in Burnaby and some other Metro Vancouver cities.

The bylaw would change that by forbidding hookah use inside business premises for any substance.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Bankruptcy feared

Hamadi said if Kayan is closed, she will likely go bankrupt.

"We have no way out," she said.

Hamadi described herself as an immigrant from Lebanon who has lived in Burnaby for 27 years. She said she and other "ethnic people" who own these businesses are being treated unfairly.

Pascal Berro, manager of Living Room Lounge Cafe, is also an immigrant from Lebanon and has lived in Canada for 20 years.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"Most of the people that come to our lounge, it's to come practice their culture," Berro said. "It is a way of socializing and just having a support system as well."

Berro said she and other investors spent $2 million to meet the city's requirements for a hookah lounge which opened in August 2019.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"If they were planning to [change the bylaw], why did they give us that license? Why did they allow me to spend so much money, all our life savings and then they're taking it away from us?" she asked.

"I'm very upset and very sad, very frustrated and it's just not fair."

Berro says if all 11 businesses close, dozens of employees could lose their jobs.

Health risks

Hamadi said she has met with Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley about grandfathering in existing businesses. She said a meeting with the mayor was positive but he did not commit to anything.

Hurley said he's hopeful the businesses can adapt.

"When smoking was taken down from bars and restaurants there was a big outcry at that time that it was going to limit their businesses or even destroy their businesses but that didn't turn out to be the case," Hurley said.

"So certainly we're hoping that that's what happens in most cases here, too."

Hurley said the goal of the bylaw is to promote public health. Both Hamadi and Berro said non-tobacco shisha has few health risks, but Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, disagrees.

"There's more than enough evidence that it is a very significant health risk in terms of cancer and heart disease," he said.

"Just as if you're to breathe in smoke from a campfire, it's harmful."

Cunningham also said there's evidence many businesses selling what they claim is a tobacco-free product are actually selling tobacco. Hamadi and Berro insist they have always followed the law.

The proposed bylaw is set to go before Burnaby's city council for final approval Oct. 26.

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