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Working in Shisha Bars: Slow Deaths?

Across the Gulf states, shisha cafes are the most popular venues for socialising for both families and friends. It’s not a strange sight to see very young children, from babies in arms to young adults, patronising these cafes with the adults in charge of them.

Despite several campaigns, there’s little or no cognisance of the harmful secondhand smoking effects, especially on children.

Amongst those co-opted against their will to imbibe the toxic fumes are the largely migrant staff in these restaurants.

A 2016 study (see sidebar) reveals increased carbon monoxide (CO) concentration at the end of workers’ shift. CO, a deadly gas, is elevated in smokers as a by-product of combustion. While carbon monoxide levels vary from one person to another, a general benchmark might be that a person smoking one pack of cigarettes per day would have a CO level of 20, while someone smoking two packs per day might have a level of 40.  The study found the average level at the end of a hookah bar shift was 49, or roughly equivalent to smoking 2.5 pack of cigarettes per day. Two of the 10 participants had post-shift levels of 90.

The discussions around shisha smoking rarely include the most vulnerable of the group, the workers exposed to the smoke for anywhere between 48 to 60 hours a week.

For some, their exposure is worse. While all staff are exposed to secondhand smoke, those who tend to the water pipes (who take the first drag to ensure the hubbly-bubbly is functioning properly) are compelled to inhale directly, as part of their job description. A job description they were likely unaware of before they arrived in the Gulf.

None of the workers spoke to in different countries knew the nature of their job when they signed their contracts in their home countries. Most of them were non-smokers.

They do not have any special health insurance, nor are they subjected to more frequent medical checks to monitor any debilitating effects.

Workers excluded from widespread concerns

As Dr Ahmed Mohamed Al Mulla, head of the smoking cessation clinic at Qatar’s Hamad Medical Corporation points out, smoking shisha can be 10 times more harmful than cigarettes.

An NYU Abu Dhabi study showed that “CO levels in rooms where shisha was smoked were found to be five times higher than in rooms where cigarettes were smoked, while CO levels in rooms next to where shisha was smoked were nearly four times higher compared to rooms next to where cigarettes were smoked.”

Saudi has banned shisha in public places for many years but the implementation has been weak.

Earlier this year, Qatar’s municipal council demanded a ban on smoking shisha in closed spaces. “The council asked the Ministry of Economy and Commerce (MEC) to cancel the licences of all the closed rooms and cabins set apart for shisha at the cafes that offer tobacco products and its derivatives,” according to a local report.

A few years ago, Professor Tawfik A M Khoja, Director-General of the GCC’s Executive Board of Health Ministers’ Council called for policies banning the use of shisha in public places. “Shisha smoking is associated with many of the same serious life-threatening conditions as cigarette smoking, leading to lung cancer, respiratory illness and cardiovascular diseases […] Users tend to smoke with friends in cafes and other public places, which is also a cause of second-hand smoking.”