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Secret smokers – clampdown on shisha

Secret smokers – clampdown on shisha

The recent crackdown and mass detention of youths in Addis Ababa came along with a temporary shutdown of lounges and bars that are accused of serving shisha or hookah to their customers, majority of which are youths.

A number of well-known bars around commercial centers like Bole, Piassa and Mercato suffered a few days of closure by authorities because the government claimed that they were caught serving youths who were allegedly conspiring to create unrest in Addis Ababa. In that regard, as per the government’s claim, the main reason for the arrest was not about deterring youths from smoking shisha or protecting them from addiction; rather, as some argue, it was more of a politically motivated action.

This turn of events brought fresh argument to the fore – especially among those who are against the use of tobacco – as to why shisha became easily available and why those recreational places were allowed to sell shisha in broad daylight.

Hookah a.k.a. shisha was first introduced to the Ethiopian urban setting some 15 years back by Middle Eastern restaurants in Addis Ababa. They opened shop primarily to serve foreign customers, particularly Arabs. Aside from this, it was rare to see hookah in every bars or lounges let alone in small and very crowded khat chewing establishments.

However, this trend has now changed with the fast rate of urbanization and changes in lifestyle. Just over the past few years, the majority of bars in the capital started serving shisha. In fact, the general trend of tobacco smokers has grown at an alarming rate.

 The Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), which was released last year, indicate that there are around 3.7 million tobacco users and 2.9 million adult cigarette smokers in the country.

Even though this figure seems insignificant in comparison to other countries and when considering the 100 million total population of Ethiopia, the general trend shows the figures might escalate very soon.  And the number of shisha smokers is just the tip of the iceberg.

The fact on the ground is very worrying, said an anti-tobacco campaigner with afflation to an international anti-tobacco camping institution. The expert, whose name is withheld upon request, shared his recent experience where he held an assessment in a number of bars and lounges in Addis.

“It almost difficult to find bars that doesn’t serve shisha,” he said.

By the same token, in an assessment conducted by The Reporter, most of the bars – after weeks of stopping selling shisha – are now reemerging and have begun to sell the product. Recreation centers such as nightclubs, bars and lounges have continued the service.

Authorities were said to have confiscate and burnt thousands of shisha products and closed down a number of houses.  For instance, last week, Arada Sub City is said to have commenced a wider campaign denouncing smoking shisha. 

Contrary to this, other famous bars across the city are still providing the product; not only that there a residential houses that are involved in the business.

There are more than 20 types of shisha that are mainly imported from Middle Eastern countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A company called ALFAKHR is one of the major producers of the product.

The products and the shisha equipment are easily available and affordable to those who want to be involve in the business or want to use the product.

For instance one shisha pipe is sold up to 1,600 birr where as a hookah bowl ranges from 150 birr to 250 birr. In addition to the price variation, shisha is also available in different aromas and flavors to customers where mint and apple flavors are the preferred ones.

So how is shisha or flavored tobacco being imported and sold in the market?

Ethiopia’s tobacco control directive, which was introduced in 2015, and a prior proclamation clearly bans the use as well as importation of flavored tobacco.

“No person shall import, wholesale, distribute, sell or offer for sale any flavored tobacco products,” the directive reads.

Further, it also prohibits “the import, wholesale, distribute, sale or offer for sale any tobacco products containing any content or ingredient used to create an impression that a tobacco product has health benefits or reduced health hazards, including but not limited to, vitamins, fruits and vegetables, amino acids, and essential fatty acids and stimulant compounds that are associated with energy and vitality.”

This directive, unlike its proclamation, specifically includes shisha under its list of tobacco product. Yet, both legal frameworks did not talk about things like shisha pipes. Despite this clear prohibition, the market is flooded with shisha products and shisha pipes.

According to insiders in the shisha market, 3-5 distributers of both shisha products and pipes are based in Addis Ababa. These distributers work closely with bars, hotels and lounges in the city.

These suppliers also work with famous nightclubs in the city, according to the same sources. They also have the expertise on how the shisha pipes work and can be ready for use.

“What should be made clear is that the importation of these products is prohibited by law,” Ephrem Mekuria, communication director of The Ministry of Revenues told The Reporter.

However, The Reporter has observed that those bars, like any other service rendered, would actually tax their customers for using shisha but they do not write it in the receipt. Instead they use names of other products to hide the true service which is the shisha.

As far as the importation of the tobacco products are concerned, before 2014 the National Tobacco Enterprise, which has a monopoly over the importation of any tobacco products, used to outsource the importation of shisha molasses.

“The Enterprise used to license a few importers to import the product,” Eyob Kebede, a legal expert at Addis Ababa Code Enforcement Agency, told The Reporter. The Agency is mandated to control the use of shisha.

Back then the import of shisha would pass through all the required checking processes and would be made available to users, he said. But, after 2014, the importation of shisha was totally banned.

In this regard, all shisha products and pipes have been imported illegally and distributed via illegal channels.

Though the legal frameworks for tobacco control are in place, the loopholes are being manipulated.

For instance, the Addis Ababa Code Enforcement Agency and its staffs, who are Code Enforcement Officers and are mandated to snoop around the city to control those bars, hotels and lounges that sell shisha, only work in two shifts – morning and afternoon.

“Our staffs have no mandate to work in the nights,” Eyob said.

Unfortunately, most of the activities concerning shisha took place in the night without being noticed.

Moreover, even if they managed to catch the owners of the shisha smoking joints, the same Agency still has no mandate to hold the owners criminally liable.

The Agency as well as the police are just confiscating the pipes and the products and burn them. Moreover, the owners will be asked to pay a fine of not more than 2,000 birr.

For years, this has been the practice when it comes to penalizing the wrongdoers. Still, no concerned body is working on or investing resources to find out how those illegal products are being smuggled into the country.

“I think, instead of burning the confiscated products, it would have been helpful for us if we could use them as an input to investigate on how they were being smuggled into the country,” Eyob told The Reporter.

Commentators in the sector admit that there is a wide gap between concerned government institutions such as the Tax Authority, the Ethiopian Food, Medicine and Healthcare Administration and Control Authority (FMHACA), the police as well as the Code Enforcement Agency.

The controlling mechanisms are conducted in highly disorganized fashion, according to Eyob.

Yet, when it comes to legal measures, it is to be recalled that back in 2014, the Ethiopian Parliament approved proclamation number 822, which ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). However, commentators argue that this proclamation has to be supported with a very strict tobacco control proclamation.

In this regard, this year, Ethiopia is expected to amend its tobacco control proclamation.

“In this proclamation, we tried to clear all the confusions as far as flavored tobacco is concerned,” Abrehet Gidey, legal director at FMHACA, said.

“Unlike the previous proclamation, we use shisha in the nomenclature of flavored tobacco,” she said.

However, commentators argue that more has to be done in the implementation of the laws.