Crackdown on Sheesha cafes: A case of state nanny-ism

Published November 9, 2015
The government must respect an adult citizen’s autonomy over his or her own body. —Reuters
The government must respect an adult citizen’s autonomy over his or her own body. —Reuters

Theoretically, there are only two kinds of activities in Pakistan: ones that are good for you, and ones that must be banned in a bid to protect a frighteningly free citizen from him or herself.

As a nation, we are growing increasingly comfortable with our own infantilisation. We have decided that we cannot be trusted with the freedom to determine the kind of information we receive, what we browse on the internet, and the things we consume.

On nearly all fronts, a government body must relieve us of the burden of making informed decisions about our personal lifestyles.

In line with the public’s expectation, the Supreme Court has ordered a report on the implementation of the countrywide Sheesha ban, given that many of these venues have remained operational despite the ban on its public use.

This is often the case with banned practices. An objectionable substance does not obediently vanish from the streets upon signing a sheet of paper in the parliament; there are often costly measures taken afterwards to enforce that ban.

This is why the preferred practice around the world is to regulate and tax harmful substances, unless it is absolutely essential to impose a ban. This is why developed countries are hotly debating legalisation of marijuana for recreational use.

After all, we wouldn’t want our prisons bursting at the seams with citizens charged with making indecent personal choices, while we figure out what to do with criminals who pose harm to more than just themselves.

Also read: Sheesha 144

Tax-and-regulate policies are always less expensive, more manageable, and avoid conferring a tempting ‘forbidden-fruit’ status to an unhealthy practice.

This policy is also the reason behind a caveat in the Prohibition of Smoking and Protection of Non-Smokers’ Health Ordinance 2002. The government issues guidelines for permitting designated smoking areas where adequate arrangements are made to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke.

A sheesha café advertised as such, should count as a “designated smoking area”, and technically, be allowed to operate as long as they abide by the same conditions as cigarette smoking areas.

Interestingly, the difference of opinion on the matter of banning sheesha is as wide as the generation gap itself.

The strongest proponents of the ban on sheesha smoking appear to be well-meaning parents, seemingly eager to delegate their responsibility of raising smoke-free children to the Big Brother. Such parents believe their campaigning makes the cities safer for their teenage kids, but instead, help some businesses gain a monopoly on legal cancer-causing products such as cigarettes, tobacco pans, and betel nuts.

As a doctor, I’ll make no attempt at denying the effects of sheesha smoking on one’s health.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an hour long session of smoking sheesha equals the consumption of 100-200 cigarettes, divided among the number of people sharing it.

Fortunately, sheesha-smoking is a social tradition, usually involving groups of people. A lone smoker at a hookah bar is an uncommon and tragic sight, unless it happens to be the wise caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Other studies have found fewer negative effects, and its potential to cause addiction still appears to be under some debate. However, it may be safely concluded that sheesha smoking is a terribly unhealthy practice that is difficult to sugarcoat.

The fear of hookah compounded by rumours of sheesha cafes pouring illicit substances in their water-pipes without the patrons’ knowledge, or serving it to minors. These are indeed illegal practices, but cannot be used to criminalise all sheesha cafes. After all, cigarette packs can also be (and are!) sold to minors throughout the country.

Also read: Trend — Sheesha culture

It’s prudent for the government to take strong measures like anti-smoking campaigning and banning advertisement of harmful products in the interest of public safety.

This applies to sheesha-smoking as much as it does to cigarettes. But ultimately, the government must respect an adult citizen’s autonomy over his or her own body.

Similarly, citizens must rethink their readiness of surrendering right after right to the government – from flying a kite to smoking a waterpipe – and consider the consequences of the trend they’re setting.

The government is not a Super-Nanny expected to fly in with a magic umbrella to save us from our own indecent or unhealthy personal choices. It is crucial to retain some decision-making power for ourselves on these matters as responsible adults.

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