Six twenty-somethings are cozied around two water pipes. As they inhale, the water bubbles within each pipe’s glass base and as they exhale, the cloud of smoke around them grows thicker.
The scene may look familiar to those from the West Coast, but the smell is a foreign one.
Cleopatra Hookah & Coffee Lounge on Broughton Street is overwhelmed with the fragrance of burning molasses – not an ounce of tobacco and not a fleck of cannabis – a trend that finally made its way to Victoria after gaining popularity across the country.
“It’s relaxing,” says Derek Sivorot, who had smoked vegetable-based products from hookah pipes while travelling and was excited to light up a double apple pipe back at home. “It’s always good to sit down with a friend, like having a beer.”
Across the table, Daniel Cormier pulls the hose from his mouth.
“I remember hearing about this place when it was moving here and I said ‘Not in Victoria, no way,’” Cormier says.
Kareem Serry opened the doors to the late-night lounge this spring, when he saw an untapped market in Victoria. Serry differentiated Cleopatra, one of three places in Victoria offering hookahs at that time, from its competition by adhering to the highest standards for cleanliness and safety, he says.
“We really want to educate people on what hookah is all about, which is clean, rinse, sanitize and does not contain narcotics,” Serry says.
Serry, a 29 year-old trained in hotel management backs up his claim by bustling around behind the counter of the living room-sized lounge with bright red walls and slick black furniture. He points to a high temperature sanitation machine, three compartment sink and stainless steel canisters galore – each one labelled and tucked into place. Mouthpieces are replaced and water is changed for each customer, he says. All hookahs are served on a base designed not to tip. His list of voluntary precautions is long.
“It’s the new way of smoking hookah,” says the Egyptian-born, B.C.-raised businessman. “We’re still holding up the same culture, but we’re taking it to the next level of hygiene an cleanliness.”
But the health concerns from the Vancouver Island Health Authority don’t centre on sanitation, rather, the potential harm caused by inhaling burning vegetable matter.
This spring VIHA’s medical health officers began canvassing municipal councils across Vancouver Island in hopes of garnering support for updated and consistent clean air bylaws – suggestions that range from the prohibition of smoking tobacco on beaches to the public use of hookah pipes.
“You can get up to 30 times the amount of carbon monoxide in that (vegetable) smoke than what you would get from cigarette smoking,” says Dr. Richard Stanwick, VIHA’s chief medical health officer.
“Some people have speculated is that the reason people are using hookahs is because you get this sensation of disorientation and lightheadedness. What they might be experiencing is not a high from the vegetable material, but carbon monoxide poisoning.”
When an event organizer contacted VIHA last year to obtain a permit to offer hookah pipes to his guests, Stanwick wouldn’t issue one. Not because he wouldn’t issue a permit, but because he couldn’t.
Stanwick soon learned that although the Capital Regional District was a leader in regulating tobacco use in public spaces, the entire Island is curiously void of any restrictions on smoking anything else, including the vegetable-based flavoured molasses products used freely in water pipes in Victoria.
The request sparked a fact-finding mission for Stanwick, who has since uncovered early reports he says reveal a real risk to those enticed by the North America’s adoption of an age-old Middle Eastern tradition. Stanwick points to an American study that showed a group of medical students were smoking hookah under the belief that it was safer than smoking cigarettes and were unaware of the high levels of carcinogenic poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, present in the smoke.
“We were quite surprised to find that in places like Montreal and Toronto, where maybe there’s a bigger ethnic community, this is emerging as a major public health issue,” Stanwick says. “It’s quite fascinating that this is an issue that for once, didn’t start in British Columbia.”
Cleopatra was the city’s second designated hookah lounge, following Fernwood’s Darband Tea House, which the owner recently closed for personal reasons. Wild Coffee on Yates Street also offers hookah to guests.
Back in Cleopatra, nearing 1 a.m., Serry demonstrates the lock mechanism on a hookah that prevents smokers from enjoying anything other than his flavoured molasses products and water in pipes. He has some customers, like Sivorot and his friends, who smoke a pipe over all natural coals instead of going out for drinks. Others, in their attempts to quit smoking cigarettes, he says, smoke a hookah once a week to ease the process.
“The way I see it, it’s more of a tax concern than a health concern,” Serry says of the recent attention from VIHA. “If you really cared about health, you would ban cigarettes. … Here, if you get addicted, it’s in your head.”
Sivorot and his crew pay the bill for their two hookahs and coffee, which amounts to about the same cost of a single beer each at a pub. They thank Serry and step out onto the sidewalk, leaving behind the loud electronic beats on Serry’s sound system and a table of Muslim men celebrating the end of Ramadan.
“It’s better than the usual downtown stuff,” Sivorot adds.