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City stalls in its attempt to close Vancouver hookah lounges

Health officials say they were not involved in recent city attempt to close the businesses
Persian Tea House owner Mohammadian Abdolhamid (Hamid) sits outside the hookah lounge he has operated for 25 years

When longtime entrepreneur Mohammadian Abdolhamid (Hamid) learned in early August that the City of Vancouver was trying to close his 25-year-old hookah lounge Persian Tea House, he feared for his survival.

“I’m 77 years old,” he told BIV. “What can I do?”

Hamid had gone on a 19-day hunger strike in 2015, when the city last tried to close his unlicensed business. Back in 2015, the city’s rationale was that the venture was violating a 2007 city health bylaw that banned indoor smoking in commercial establishments. BC Supreme Court Justice Peter Leask had also at the time recently dismissed hookah lounge owners’ appeal of the city’s ruling.

Fast forward eight years to this summer and Vancouver’s chief building official, Saul Schwebs, on July 25, sent the Persian Tea House’s landlord, Yip Lai, an order to cease “the unauthorized use of hookah lounge within 14 days of this order” because there was “smoking” going on inside.

Nearly two months have since passed and it appears that the city has not taken any further action.

Health officials told BIV they were not involved in the city’s August decision to try to close the city’s two hookah lounges – the Persian Tea House at 668 Davie Street and the Ahwaz Hookah House at 1322 West Georgia Street.

Schwebs’ order said that if Hamid did not comply, the matter could be referred to the city prosecutor with a request to approve charges under the city’s bylaw.

The order also threatened the landlord with possible fines of up to $500 per day if the order was not followed.

Hamid then received a note from his landlord, dated Aug. 8, which ordered him to “cease smoking inside the premises,” and obey the city order.

He told BIV that he was willing to go on a hunger strike again if needed because he did not want to contemplate living without his business, which he considers his home.

Customers at Hamid’s lounge suck flavoured water vapour out of pipes, which are attached to stand-alone devices that have water in their bases.

He puts flavoured molasses in a small cup, wraps it with punctured tinfoil, tops it with a hot charcoal, and puts the cup on top of the stand-alone devices so the fruit essence can mix with the water vapour. He charges $35 and provides free tea.

Traditionally, instead of the flavoured molasses, the cups at the tops of the hookah devices contain tobacco. Hamid insists, however, that the product he uses does not contain tobacco. He showed BIV a tub of shisha molasses made by Ottawa-based Bubbly, which lists ingredients and does not contain tobacco.

“The provincial Tobacco and Vapour Products Control Act and Regulation, enforced by VCH (Vancouver Coastal Health,) is specific to tobacco and vapour products,” VCH told BIV in an email. “It does not prohibit indoor use of hookah pipes as long as tobacco is not used.”

VCH added, however, that under Section 1.2 of the City of Vancouver’s by-law, “burning” means to produce smoke, vapour or other substances that can be inhaled; and “smoke,” or “smoking,” includes burning a cigarette or cigar, or burning any substance using a pipe, hookah pipe, lighted smoking device or electronic smoking device.

“Research on the harmful effects of hookah pipe smoking shows even if the combusted or heated product does not contain tobacco, hookah pipe smoking is harmful to users and to those in the immediate environment,” VCH said in its email.

Hamid told BIV that he recently went on a one-day fast to practice in case he needs to stop eating for a long spell.

He said he would like to buy a city business licence, just like he did when he opened in 1998. The city in 2007 stopped him from renewing that licence and paying annual fees so he has since operated without a business licence.

Hamid’s lawyer, Dean Davison, told BIV that he represented two hookah stores in Burnaby in 2021, when the City of Burnaby was attempting to close hookah lounges in that suburb because there was “smoking” inside.

Discussions with Burnaby’s mayor and city council resulted in the city directing staff to draft a bylaw to grandfather in the existing hookah-lounge businesses so they could continue to operate.

That bylaw went into effect Jan. 1, 2022.

“They can't sell their businesses but as long as they're running their businesses, they can stay open,” Davison said of the Burnaby hookah shop owners.

“We would love the City of Vancouver to do the same thing.”

BIV spoke with Abbas Abdiannia, who owns Vancouver’s other hookah lounge, Ahwaz Hookah House, and he confirmed that the city is also trying to shut down his business.

Abdiannia said he too had a business licence for his lounge, which he opened 17 years ago, until the city stopped allowing him to buy one. 

“We want the same thing that Burnaby gave to its hookah bars,” he said.

"So far, everything is good. It seems like everything is quiet so we appreciate it." 

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