The trial continues for the owners of Vancouver’s two hookah shops who challenged a city bylaw as unconstitutional to cultural freedom, after they received a city order in 2009 to effectively shut down. Last week, the trial resumed for three days, before a decision was delayed until the fall.
Dean Davison, the lawyer representing both owners, highlights the consequences a decision—either for or against—could have on Vancouver and other Canadian cities. “The bylaw [passed in 2007] is very broad and circular,” says Davison. “So it could possibly ban things like woodburning or candles since it’s not specific. If there are enough complaints them, these activities could also be banned.”
The health bylaw states smoke or smoking “means to inhale, exhale, burn, or carry a lighted cigarette, cigar pipe, hookah pipe, or other lighted smoking equipment that burns tobacco or other weed or substance [sic].”
To Davison, this becomes problematic because “to burn” is defined as “smoking.” Therefore, “lighted smoking equipment” could imply things like a candles or burning incense in churches, both employing quipment used to burn a substance. The use of “other substance” is equally vague.
“If the owners are successful in this case, this would at least force the city to reword the document so that it specifies what substance is prohibited,” says Davison. “It should be any substance that is proven to have negative impacts on people’s health. This would become Canada-wide.”
The owners of both Ahwaz Hookah House and the Persian Tea House stopped using tobacco in their product before 2007 to comply with the B.C. Tobacco Act. Instead, they use a mixture of herbs, fruit and molasses that emits a sweeter smell. There is no research on how this product affects a person’s health, says Davison.
However, the shops do use a charcoal puck to heat the substance. During the last week, the trial heard from a University of Toronto expert about the effects of burning charcoal, who stated this act gives off bad substances. But Davison insists there was no evidence to prove this statement.
“How much is bad for you?” says Davison. “This same charcoal is being used in BBQs and other things, at the same levels. It’s the exact same puck used in Greek orthodox churches. It seems unfair that they’re going after our clients.”
If the city bans hookah, there would be no incentive for the bylaw to be reworded. It could also provide vindication; a nod to other cities, who may be on the fence, that they are on the right track. Ottawa, for example, seems to be watching this case closely before making any moves.
From a cultural perspective, hookah shops become places for people to socialize, similar to going for a pint or gathering at a coffee shop, according to Davison. “The UBC expert on cultural psychology that we heard from said that many use these places to form bonds if they are new to Vancouver,” says Davison. “It reminds users of something they grew up with, where they can reminisce about the past.”
Hookah cafes also don’t serve food, so one would only enter a shop for the sole act of smoking and socializing, which makes involuntary exposure to hookah smoke near impossible.
The trial is set to continue in August, with a final decision scheduled for the fall.
The city was unable to comment before before this article was published.