City Hall yesterday announced it would seek a ban on shisha – an often-flavoured tobacco popular in the Middle East – saying that “rogue” shisha lounges had been lacing the product with drugs to get consumers hooked, a charge lounge operators vehemently denied.
According to City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong would be sending a request to the Ministry of Interior asking it to enact a ban.
“In reality, smoking shisha is not taking drugs, but because some rogue business people take the opportunity to sell drugs in shisha, it makes it easy for users to get addicted,” Dimanche said. “So it is very dangerous for people.”
Dimanche said he did not know exactly when the letter seeking “to stop shisha businesses” would be sent to the Ministry of Interior, and refused to say which businesses had secretly been adulterating their shisha with drugs.
“It’s not Cambodian culture. It’s foreign culture,” he added.
Shisha, typically smoked in cafes through a communal water pipe, originated in the Middle East, but has gained in popularity in much of the world, including Cambodia. According to a report by the World Health Organization, shisha carries the same risks as any tobacco product, but since smoking sessions typically last longer, the volume of smoke inhaled can be 20 times that of a cigarette.
Indeed, Meas Virith, secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said his organisation had tested shisha samples provided by the municipality, but the only drug they found was nicotine, which exists in virtually all tobacco products.
“This is the chemical nicotine, like in [smokeless] e-cigarettes, and it can affect people’s health and environment,” Virith said, noting that shisha use seemed to take off in 2013, “but it is used anarchically”.
“If we take no action to control it, its use can spread, and that is an adverse effect for authorities to prevent,” he said, noting that anti-drug authorities are contacting Thailand, Vietnam and Middle Eastern countries for information on shisha.
Some parents had even contacted the NACD for information about the risks of shisha and whether its use among youths would make them neglect their studies, Virith said.
But Lem Oudom – manager of a strobe-lit, techno-playing shisha bar called The Sands that is popular with young Cambodians – defended his product, and said that business would plummet if it were banned.
“Shisha is not a drug, and my shop does not inject drugs [into it] for clients,” Oudom said. “Smoking it is like smoking cigarettes, which can be done everywhere. If it is banned, our customers will decrease, even if our place serves other beverages.”
Chey Chumneas commune officials had only come to his place once since it opened eight months ago, he added, but only to make sure his music wasn’t disturbing the neighbours.
“It was not drug issues that they were discussing with us,” he said.
Likewise, a manager at the Harem Shisha Lounge on Phnom Penh’s riverside who asked not to be named said he was not in the drug-peddling business.
“No, we don’t do that. We don’t even allow [people] in school uniforms,” he said.
“Before we opened the business, the police came to investigate and they tested the shisha and it was not a drug,” he continued, noting that police had since come “maybe three or four times” to retest for drugs over the past three years, each time finding nothing.
Chey Chumneas commune police chief Lim Serei Sophorn said yesterday that he knew nothing about shisha, but would be meeting with shisha lounge owners today about the proposed order.
“We’ll wait and see what we are going to do, because it’s a new order,” he said.