WITHIN the past decade or so, there have been sporadic efforts by the state to clamp down on sheesha cafes. This is most ostensibly highlighted in newspapers and on television screens when authorities display confiscated sheesha in open grounds, with the vibrant glass crushed under the weight of heavy machinery in view of the cameras. Other measures undertaken to ‘discourage the youth’ from taking up this harmful activity have included heavy fines, sealing of cafes (though anecdotal evidence suggests this is temporary), and conducting arrests. In 2015, the Punjab government submitted an interim report stating it had directed 133 arrests for sheesha-related offences. The decision to ban sheesha cafes by various provincial governments was always contested, with proponents pointing to the business the activity generates, the communal nature of sheesha smoking amidst a dearth of social activities, or denouncing the overly moralistic language of the authorities and the rise of the ‘nanny state’ that polices, lectures and infantilises. Recently, a senator pointed out at a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on National Health Services that removing sheesha from restaurants and open spaces has led to its proliferation within homes, as many continue to smoke as a way to ‘unwind’ or ‘entertain’. He suggested ‘regulation’ in place of an outright public ban. This led to criticism by doctors.
Indeed, no one can deny the health hazards that sheesha and other highly addictive tobacco and nicotine-based products pose to consumers, even if the scale of the damage is disputed. While research findings on the topic may vary, the World Health Organisation found that regular sheesha smokers face the same health risks as cigarette smokers, and that an hour-long sheesha session is equivalent to smoking 100 to 200 cigarettes. Thus, anti-tobacco activists and a range of medical bodies are correct to raise alarm over the suggestion to relax anti-tobacco laws. While businesses might be hurt and the moralistic language irritate some, there are health reasons for discouraging the activity.
Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2019