Shisha up in smoke in Singapore

The glass-bottomed water pipe holds fruit-flavored tobacco, encased with foil and burning coal. Smoke passes through the water chamber, the different flavors streaming out with it. Smokers sit for hours – after-work, during weekends – looking for the ultimate way to relax. This form of smoking is commonly known as shisha, and has been banned in Singapore as of early November.

The atmosphere of Arab Street, one of the main areas in Singapore that sells shisha. Photo by Rachael Hyde.
The atmosphere of Arab Street, one of the main areas in Singapore that sells shisha. Photo by Rachael Hyde.

Shisha (or ‘hookah’) smoking sessions, often done at shisha bars or restaurants, is the equivalent of smoking 100 or more cigarettes, according to several health experts. It is because of this health risk that the import, distribution and sale of shisha will be banned under Singapore’s new Tobacco Act.

According to Secretary for Health, Faishal Ibrahim, existing tobacco importers and retailers who sell shisha will be allowed to continue. As told to the Straits Times, the current import and retailing of shisha can continue until July of 2016. This is to ensure that shisha sellers will be allowed “enough time to deplete their stock and restructure their businesses,” Ibrahim said.

The majority of students at SAS believe that this ban will have little effect on those who smoke shisha here.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I think people who smoke would find a way to smoke anyways,” said sophomore Zoe Adamopoulos, when asked about the effects of the ban on students in particular.

Junior Logan Chaudhry agrees that it won’t have severe effects. “By the time they actually start enforcing it, the current juniors and seniors this year will be gone.”

The health risks are widely debated; some see this form of tobacco as significantly worse than cigarettes, while others do not believe it has any risks.

Shisha smokers inhale great volumes of smoke in their smoking sessions, which typically last for up to an hour. It is suggested that smoking shisha is a gateway to smoking cigarettes. The National Cancer Center strongly supports the ban on shisha, as released in a statement by the center in Singapore.

Nicotine is present in shisha, which makes shisha smokers susceptible to its dangers. According to The Guardian in a piece outlining the rise of shisha smokers in England, shisha can be as addictive as any other tobacco product. On the other hand, some experts say the two are vastly different. Kamal Chaouachi, a professor at Paris IX University, states that comparing cigarettes and shisha is like “comparing apples and oranges,” as told to The Guardian.

Addiction of shisha is questioned among several students. “I’ve never heard of anyone being addicted to shisha. I think if you do anything enough it’s addictive, but people don’t seem to be addicted to it especially,” said senior Chase Wodtke.

Adamopoulos agreed. “I don’t really hear of anyone being addicted, especially here at SAS.”

Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, on the other hand, says that people can become “highly dependent” on shisha, both physically and mentally.

Users are mostly between the ages of 16-20. In a survey conducted in the United States in 2011, 18.5% of senior students had done shisha that year. Meanwhile in the UK, the amount of shisha bars rose from 129 in 2007 to 556 in 2012. The number is continuously increasing, while the number of cigarette smokers in the UK is known to be decreasing. This results in shisha becoming an alternative to smoking.

Shisha is said to have originated in ancient Persia and India, where it was only something the rich could afford. An integral part of Middle Eastern culture, it happened to spread to Turkey and following that, beyond Asia. The act was one of leisure and essentially a privilege of the rich. Today, it is far more accessible, with popular shisha cafés in North America and across Europe.

A shisha smoker at a popular café, captured by Rachael Hyde,
A shisha smoker at a popular café. Photo by Rachael Hyde.

A junior at SAS, who is choosing to remain anonymous, shared her smoking habits. “Most times we’re at friends’ houses, but other times we’re in the Arab Street area, since there are quite a few places there. A lot of people here have their own shisha towers at home, so this won’t affect them too much. Whenever I do smoke shisha, I prefer not to do it in a public place.”

She emphasized how people tend to smoke shisha when they are younger. “People use it more as freshmen. It tends to start at a younger age.”

Reactions within Singapore have mostly been positive. Reportedly, Singaporeans praised the new ban on Channel News Asia’s Facebook page, even suggesting to ban the smoking of cigarettes. The main effect of this ban is evidently on shop owners and on their regular customers.

Small cafés and exceptionally popular restaurants in Singapore, such as Ambrosia, have been supplying shisha for many years. Retailers in this area are now concerned about what this means for the distinct character of Arab Street. The ban will affect the distinct culture seen around this vibrant part of Singapore, a main concern of many of the owners.

Shisha sessions typically last for 1-2 hours for the regular smoker. Photo by Rachael Hyde.
Shisha sessions typically last for 1-2 hours for the regular smoker. Photo by Rachael Hyde.

Ambrosia’s owner, Muzaffar Mahamood, spoke to Channel News Asia about the downsides of this ban. “When people think about Arab Street, it is mainly about Mediterranean food, non-alcoholic beverages and shisha. It comes as a package.”

From a business point-of-view, the end of shisha selling could easily mean the end of many businesses. Going Om, a café in Haji Lane, stopped selling shisha one year ago. The owner, Oliver Pang, told The Straits Times that general profits dropped by 70%.  Among all shisha-selling locations in Arab Street, owners state that shisha accounts for 60-80% of sales.

Junior Danielle Wait said, “Considering how closely the drinking age is followed now, it’s possible that this rule won’t be followed either.”

While students might not be directly affected, those who do turn to shisha cafés will be. As for the retailers, their businesses will be severely impacted, as the presence of shisha in Singapore will soon be nonexistent.

Author: Meera Navlakha

Meera Navlakha has been a part of the Eye staff since sophomore year and has taken journalism all four years of high school. Currently a senior, she has been at SAS for eight years but is originally from India. Apart from journalism, she loves reading, going to brunch and re-watching episodes of her favorite shows. She can be contacted at navlakha33816@sas.edu.sg.

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