Ban on shisha spells trouble for cafe owners dependent on it

While their businesses are unlikely to close with the imminent ban on shisha smoking, the future of shisha establishments is hazy.

Business owners in the Kampong Glam area - which has for many years been seen as a shisha hot spot - were unhappy over the impending ban, announced yesterday by Parliamentary Secretary for Health Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim.

Business owners there argue that banning shisha smoking would erode the unique identity of the area, which is known for its Arab cuisine and culture.

Ms Aileen Tan, who owns Blu Jaz Cafe at Bali Lane, told The New Paper: "Although we sell shisha, I don't think the ban would affect us as much because we also sell food and are known as a live music venue."

"But the other operators who strictly depend on shisha sales might have to close down."

"Also, I think this area might lose its charm because shisha smoking is one of the things people come here for," said Ms Tan, who is in her 50s.

Many of the operators TNP spoke to were surprised by the ban which, Dr Faishal (Nee Soon GRC) said, was introduced "in view of the health risks associated with shisha smoking and to prevent the proliferation and entrenchment of shisha smoking in Singapore".

The prohibition on the import, distribution and sale of shisha will begin later this month for establishments which do not have an existing licence.

Cafe owners with existing shisha licences, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were surprised by the ban.

They declined to be named for fear their comments might get them into trouble with licensing authorities.

"We were never consulted and the question I have to ask is, what is going to happen to the area?" said one shop owner whose business depends largely on shisha sales. Shisha sales make up to 50 per cent of his business, with the rest coming from the sale of food and drinks, he explained.


"And if shisha is really harmful, why not ban it immediately? Instead, I heard from the media that there is going to be a transition period to allow us to change our business model."

"Change to what? If I lose my customers, I might as well close shop," he said.

Dr Faishal told Parliament that existing licensed tobacco importers and retailers will be allowed "to continue importing and retailing shisha tobacco until July 31, 2016".

This will give such importers and retailers time to deplete their stock and restructure their businesses away from the shisha-selling model, Mr Faishal said.

He was responding to Dr Chia Shi-Lu, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, who asked if the health ministry would review its policies to strengthen the regulation of shisha use.

A popular misconception is that shisha tobacco is less harmful and addictive than cigarettes, said Dr Faishal.

In shisha smoking, the smoke from fruit-flavoured tobacco is passed through water and inhaled using a pipe.

But it is no less harmful than other forms of tobacco use, he said, and this "raises further concerns that shisha smoking may serve as a gateway to cigarette smoking".

This is so especially among young adults.

The 2010 National Health Survey showed that 7.8 per cent of young adults aged 18 to 29 years old smoke shisha at least occasionally, compared to 1 per cent among older adults.

The Student Health Survey also found that the proportion of students who used alternative tobacco products, including shisha, had increased from 2 per cent in 2009 to 9 per cent in 2012.

In another recent study, by the Health Promotion Board (HPB), three in five (or 61.1 per cent) shisha smokers wrongly believed that smoking shisha was less harmful than cigarettes, said Dr Faishal.

But Mr Jamuri Busori, who owns a cafe at Haji Lane called I Am, said: "Although we don't sell shisha, I don't think banning it is a good idea because shisha is one of the main things stores here are known for."

The 42-year-old, who has run several cafes around the area since 2004, added: "If health concerns is the main reason for this ban, why not ban smoking and alcohol in this area because a lot of young people here do that too?"

Kampong Glam regular Azhari Osman, 24, agreed.

"An outright ban seems draconian but I don't think people will stop doing it," said the sales associate.

"They may not get it here but they will just cross the Causeway to get their shisha fix, where it costs half the price."

A one- to three-hour session of shisha smoking here typically costs $20 to $35.

This article was first published on Nov 5, 2014.
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