Despite ban, minors find easy access to tobacco at hookah bars which are mushrooming in metros and tier II cities across India. An investigative report by Tehelka SIT
“I have no problem in serving hookah to minors. Whatever tobacco flavour they will ask for, hard or mild, I will serve them. But we have to be very careful during that time. If the news of minors having hookah party at my cafe gets leaked, then we both will run into trouble. The authorities will shut my cafe. A similar situation occurred at the cafe situated next door. A 14-15 years old girl was caught smoking hookah at the cafe. The cafe was sealed, and was allowed to open only after three years,” said Sapan Dev, manager of Club 21 situated at Kolkata.
Perceived as a relatively innocuous pastime by many, hookah smoking can quickly turn into a habit, and then into addiction. “At one point of time, I even contacted an agent to help me sell my kidney to fund my hookah habit after my parents stopped giving me money. I got addicted to hookah in school and the problem became more severe by the time I joined an engineering college for further studies”. This is Nishesh [name changed], 21, who is the only son of a retired officer of railway. Nishesh started smoking as a pass time with friends while he was in class VII. As the time went by, he got into the habit of smoking too often. Slowly, the habit turned into addiction. But thankfully, after a series of counseling sessions, Nishesh has finally got rid of the habit and is leading a normal life now even as he waits for his appointment letter to join a government job.
But, Nishesh is not the only one who got addicted to hookah. Vicky [name changed], a cab driver by profession, got addicted to hookah when he was 17. Whatever he used to earn, he would spend on hookah. The addiction took a toll on his family life, with the result that his wife, upset with his hookah habit, left him for good when he was 28. His son also went away along with her.
The above two examples indicate that people in India, especially minors, are beginning to discover hookah as an alternative to drinking and smoking marijuana or doing other drugs. People think that smoking hookah is a relatively harmless alternative to “worse” drugs and is also easier to access than other illegal recreations, particularly alcohol. Since purchasing tobacco is legal when you turn 18, some seniors in high school are old enough to buy those products, including the things they can smoke by putting them in a hookah. They purchase these products and give them to their younger peers. Apparently, tobacco is easier to get than maybe alcohol.
However, hookah bars which are mushrooming rapidly in metros and tier II cities across India, are now beginning to feel the heat. One state government after another is clamping ban on them, not only for giving teenagers an easy access to hookah but also using ingredients which are not permissible under the law. Hookah bars in cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Noida, Ghaziabad, Delhi, Chandigarh, Kolkata etc have been raided from time to time for serving tobacco to minors. Despite this, hookah bars remain the hangout of choice for urban youth.
Recently, the West Bengal government imposed a ban on hookah bars in Kolkata, citing hookah tobacco’s adverse impact on public health. Announcing the decision, Kolkata’s Mayor Farhad Hakim said that the Kolkata Municipal Corporation [KMC] would cancel licenses of restaurants that operate hookah bars in the city. He added that the administration had received complaints that “certain intoxicants” were being used in hookahs by these bars resulting in youngsters turning into addicts. “Chemicals used by the bars in hookahs are extremely bad for health. So we have decided to shut them”, the Mayor said.
To explain why one state government after another is acting tough against hookah bars citing an adverse impact on public health, Tehelka carried out an investigation on these bars much before the West Bengal government announced a crackdown against them in Kolkata. The investigation has exposed how some hookah bars were ready to serve hookah with tobacco to the minors which would adversely impact their health.
According to India’s Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product – including cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes and hookah [shisha] to anyone under 21 years of age. But Tehelka investigation reveals how hookah bars care two hoots for the law as they serve hookah filled with tobacco to under-age guests.
We first met Sapan Dev, a chef-cum-manager at Club 21, Kolkata. We approached Sapan with a fictitious deal that we want to organise a birthday party of 40 guests in his bar, mostly minor children, who will be smoking hookah in the party. Sapan readily agreed to our proposal..
Here is how our meeting with Sapan Dev, a chef-cum-manager at Club 21, Kolkata, went.
Reporter…. “Ek party organise karni hai” ?
Sapan….. “Kaun si tareekh ko” ?
Reporter…. “Ye pub hai na…Club 21. 26 January ko ek party organise karni hai 40 logon ki”.
Sapan…. “Kitne baje hogi” ?
Reporter…. “Shaam ko hogi.. birthday party hai”.
Sapan…. “Hum us din.. chota hall hai wo hi de payengey.. poora nahin de payengey”.
Reporter…. “40 hai”
Sapan…. “40 hai.. bachchey hai”.
Reporter…. “Humne dekh liya”.
Sapan…. Aap ne dekh liya chota wala”.
Sapan…. “Actually hookah bar hai ye”.
Reporter…. “Bachchon ke liye hookah to chal jayega na” ?
Sapan….. “Under 18 actual mein allowed nahin, abhi guardian hai wo hi allow kar sakte hai. Piyo na piyo apka matter hai”
Reporter…. “Apko koi dikkat nahin hai” ?
Sapan…. “Nahin humko nahin hai”.
Reporter…. “Agar koi bachcha hookah piye apko koi dikkat nahin hai” ?
Sapan…. “Nahin hai. Agar uska guardian allow karega to humein koi dikkat nahin hai”.
[Sapan Dev told Tehelka that children below 18 are not allowed in his hookah bar. But if they are accompanied by their guardians, he has no problem in letting them smoke hookah in his bar.]
Now, Sapan told Tehelka about the flavours of tobacco served in his hookah bar. According to him, about 18 flavours of tobacco are served in his bar.
Reporter…. “Kitney type ka tobacco milayengey usmein”?
Sapan…. “Kitney type ka tobacco hoga” ?
Reporter…. “Tambaku kitney tarah ke hongey” ?
Sapan…. “Ismein kitna hum dekh lete hai shayad. Hum logon ke pass abhi 17-18 flavours ka hai”.
Reporter…. “Ka tambaku?”.
Sapan …. “Haan!”.
[In response to a query by Tehelka reporter, Sapan said that 17-18 flavours of tobacco are served in his hookah bar.]
We tried to extract assurance from Sapan Dev that he would not go back on his on his promise of allowing children into his hookah bar at the last minute. Sapan however sought to allay our apprehension. He assured us that all 40 minor children in the age group of 15-16-17 can use his cafe for hookah party.]
Reporter…. “Aisa to nahin hai apse baat hui hai. Hum apko paisa de dey aur aap baad main nakaar de ki bachchon ke liye hookah bar nahin chalega”?
Sapan…. “Nahin-Nahin wo nahin hoga”.
Reporter…. “Main pehley hi bata raha hoon. 16 saal ke bachchey hai, masti karengey. 40 bachchey hai 15-16-17 teen category ke hongey wo kar lengey apne aap. Yahan isolation mein dance wagarah sab kar lengey”.
Sapan…. “Sab kar lengey personal hai”.
[Sapan told Tehelka that he would not go back on his promise to allow children to smoke hookah at the last moment. With this, decks were cleared for birthday party for the minors in the age group from 15 to 17 at the hookah bar.]
Now Sapan told the number of hookahs required for 40 minor children. According to him, one hookah can be used by three children.
Reporter…. “Sapan ji ye bataye ki ismein 40 bachchey. 40 bachchey ke liye kitna hookah theek rahega” ?
Sapan…. “40 bachchon mein ek hookah teen admiyon key liye share ho sakta hai. Ussey zyada nahin”.
Reporter…. “Ek hookah teen admiyon main”.
[ According to Sapan, one hookah can be used by three children]
According to Sapan we need 12 to 15 hookah for 40 children. Below this number will be a killjoy as we will not be able to enjoy the hookah.
Reporter…. “To 40 bachchon mein kitne hookah aap lagwa dengey” ?
Sapan…. “Us hisaab se to 12 ya 15 lena chahiye”.
Reporter…. “12-15 hookah” ?
Sapan…. “Haan, agar issey kum lengey to aapka flavour jal jayega”.
Reporter… “Maza nahin ayega”.
Sapan…. “Maza nahin ayega”.
[ Sapan said that for 40 children we need 12-15 hookahs. Anything less than that that will spoil the flavour]
Now Sapan told us the names of tobacco flavours he will use in the hookah. According to him he will use tree-pun, paan, apple and rasbari flavors in the hookah.
Reporter…. “Usmein tobacco kaun si hogi” ?
Sapan…. “Wo to apke pasand se. Jaisey tree -pun hai, paan hai, apka apple hai, rasbari hai. Ye sab alag-alag flavour aatey hai. Jo choose karega wo hi menu dekh kar dengey”.
Reporter…. “ Wo aap lagwa dengey… 40 bachchon mein 12 hookah theek rahengey. Ek par teen lagey rahengey” ?
Sapan…. “ Haan”.
[ Sapan told us the flavours of tobacco he will serve in the hookah to 40 children].
Now, Sapan told us the price of hookah. Big hookah is in the range of Rs 650 to 700. And the price of smaller one is Rs 500.
Reporter…. “To ye sarey serve karengey na us din” ?
Reporter…. “Ye jitney bhi hai chotey-bade ye sare” ?
Sapan… “Nahin bade ka rate alag hai…bada apka 650-700 tak hai. Aur chota 500 tak hai. Bar tender ye jo hai ye 500 tak hai. Ye apka 650 tak hai.. ye 400 hai”.
Reporter…. “Ek hukkey se kitney log le letey hai” ?
Sapan ….. “Teen”.
Reporter…. “Lekin ye hookah unlimited rahega”?
Sapan…. “Koi nahin jitna hookah jayega utna hi bil banega”.
[Sapan told Tehelka about the hookah rate. For bigger size it is Rs 650 to 700. And for smaller size can be bought with Rs 500. The hookah will be served unlimited.]
Now Sapan advised us that nobody should get a inkling of the proposed hookah party, otherwise we will both be in trouble and his cafe will shut down.
Reporter…. “ Aap logon ko koi dikkat na ho” ?
Sapan…. “Dekhiye us time checking ho gaya kisi bhi tarah se, kisi ke pass khabar aa gaya to dikkat dono ko hi hai. Mera to cafe band kar dega. Aur kholney hi nahin dega”.
[ Sapan said that we have to maintain complete secrecy about the minors’ hookah party in his cafe. Otherwise if somebody came to know about it, than we both will be in trouble and it will be curtains for his cafe]
Then Sapan gave an example of a hookah bar situated near his cafe, which was shut down because a girl aged 14-15 years was spotted smoking hookah in that cafe. The parlour remained shut for three years before it was re-opened.
Sapan…. “Neechey ka cafe aisey hi band hua ek baar, 14-15 saal ki ladki ko pakad liya tha. Poora cafe band ho gaya.”.
Reporter….. “Kis cheez main pakda gaya” ?
Sapan…. “Hookah pee raha tha”.
Reporter…. “Neechey bhi hukka hai”. ?
Sapan….. “Neechey hookah tha. Wo band kar diya abhi. Wo teen saal ke baad phir se khula hai”.
[ Sapan explained how a cafe next to his hookah bar was shut down after a teenage girl were caught smoking hookah there.]
After Sapan, Tehelka met Debarata Ghosh, the manager of Hashtag Live hookah bar situated in Kolkata. We gave the same fictitious deal to Debarata that on coming 26th January we want to organise a party of 40 people in his hookah bar comprising 30 minors and ten adults. Debarata agreed to our demand and told us that he would give hard flavoured tobacco in hukkah to our minor guests and also assured us that organising a minor hookah party in his bar will not be a problem.
Reporter…. “Achcha ye bataye 30 bachchon par 10 hookah kaafi rahengey” ?
Debarata…. “Haan ho jayega koi dikkat nahin.. ho jayega.. aur alag se ek-do flavour chahiye hongey to” ?
Reporter…. “Hard flavour chahiye sabke liye” ?
Debarata…. “Ho jayega”.
Reporter….. “Flavour matlab tambaku”.
Reporter….. “Kahin koi issue to nahin hai bachchon ke saath hookah-vukka peetey hue” ?
[Debarata claimed that organising a party of minors in his hookah bar is not be a big deal for him. He also assured us that he would give hard tobacco flavour to our guests]
Debarata also assured us that teenagers who will be there for the fun will not be forced to wear face mask due to Covid restrictions.
Reporter…. “Debu main ek baat bata doon. Bachchey masti karengey.. koi mask nahin pehnega”.
Debarata…. “Nahin-nahin wo sab nahin”.
Reporter….. “Kahin tum usko bolo ki Covid hai. mask pehno” ?
Debarata…. “ Nahin sir”.
[ Bar manager Debarata assured us that he would not play a party pooper and would not ask children to wear face masks etc because of Covid restrictions].
Debarata now assured Tehelka reporter that our minor guests will be allowed to have hookah with hard flavour tobacco.
Reporter…. “Hookah to le sakte hai bachchey” ?
Debarata…. “ Haan”.
Reporter…. “Haan to hookah karwa dijiye”.
Reporter….. “Hookah mein sabse hard flavour kaun sa hota hai tambaku ka? ”
Debarata…. “Hard main to jaisey ki gum supari. Paan ke saath bhi mix hota hai. Paan Rajni ho gaya. Matlab bahut sara hai. Hard flavor.. light flavour mein hai.”.
[ Debarata said minor children can have hookah with hard flavour tobacco. He also named several tobacco flavours for us.]
We now approached, Old Street Club, the third hookah bar of Kolkata and met Club Incharge Faiz Ahmed. We gave the same fictitious deal of organising minors’ hookah party of 40 guests to Faiz, to which he promptly agreed. Faiz assured us that he would give hard flavour tobacco to our guests which will intoxicate them heavily.
Reporter…. “Hookah kaun- kaun sa hai apke paas flavour” ?
Faiz…. “Jo apko chahiye wo milega”.
Reporter…. “Hard se hard tambaku wala”.
Faiz…. “Wo ho jayega”.
Reporter…. “Nasha accha ho jayega?”.
Reporter…. “Theek hai”.
[ Faiz Ahmed told reporter that we will get hard flavour tobacco in hookah for our guests, who will then get high in no time.]
Faiz described our minor guests in the age of 14-15-16 years as adult and told us that they can also use hookah in his bar. He added that for forty guests, at least 18-20 hookahs are needed.
Reporter…. “Achcha ye bataye 30 bachchey hai humarey aur 10 bade hai to kitne hukkey chahiye. 40 logon main kitna hookah de dengey aap. Kitney hookah hone chahiye” ?
Faiz…. “Bachchey logon ko bhi lagega” ?
Faiz…. “Bachchey kitni umr ke hai” ?
Faiz….. “Matlab jawaan hi hai sarey. 14-15-16 sab jawaan hi hue na sarey. Hai 40 mein kum se kum 18-20 base to lagega hi. Kum se kum 20”.
Reporter…. “18-20 hukkey to lagengey hi”.
[Faiz tried to put us at ease by explaining that minor guests in the age group of 14 to 16 who we will bring to the party can be dubbed as young. So they can also use hookah. In all, he said 18 to 20 hookahs are needed for our forty guests.]
We again told Faiz that many of our guests are minor. To which he acknowledged positively.
Reporter…. “Usmein Faiz saheb yaad rakhiyega bachchey bhi hukka use karengey” ?
Faiz…. “Wo to aap log pehley hi bata chukey they. Bachcha bhi rahega. Matlab jawaan type ke. Zyada bhi nahin hai. Normal hi hai.”
Reporter…. 14, 15 saal ke”
[ We again told faiz that our list of guests has large number of minors. To which, Faiz reminded us that we had already told him about it.]
Faiz now introduces us to MB Rony, the man who prepares hookah in his club. Rony told us about various flavours of tobacco he is using in the hookah at his club. According to him, some flavours are very hard and will have quite a kick.
Reporter…. “ Hookah aap hi banatey hai” ?
Rony…. “Haan hum hi banatey hai”.
Reporter…. “Hookah main kaun sa flavour sabse hard hota hai” ?
Rony…. “Hard karke koi flavour nahin hai. Lekin koi flavour hai jo sur par hit karta hai. Bahut zyada daalney ke baad kai baar hit kar jaata hai. Wo hi sab flavour hai. Jaisey double apple ho gaya, brain freezer ho gaya. Ye sab flavour jab koi dekhney mein bada dikhta hai un logon ko dete hai”.
[ Rony who prepares hukkah at Faiz’s club described various flavours of tobacco used in hookah. According to him, some tobacco flavours hit the consumer very hard. Such flavours are given to those customers who look big in appearance]
Rony now revealed that children who come to his hookah bar, order tobacco flavour according to their choice.
Reporter…. “Bachchey kaun sa lete hai hookah bar mein flavour” ?
Rony…. “Wo log apne hisaab se order dete hai. Unke hisaab se jo unko theek lage. Jaisey ki light flavour hai to mix karke de dete hai. Aur samajh mein nahin aa raha hai ki bahut zyada hard ho jaa raha hai aur kuch flavour ko add karke light banakar bachcha logon ko dete hai”
[Rony confessed that children do visit his hookah bar, and order flavour according to their taste. If they need light flavor, then I give them light flavour. And if they later find out that the flavour is stronger than they had desired for, then he mixes some other flavour to make it lighter before handing it over to them again.]
The investigation carried out by Tehelka revealed that none of the hookah bars is concerned about the adverse effect the hookah has on minors’ health. They are caught on camera offering to organise hookah party for minors, with concern about minor’s health being the last thing on their mind. In the states where hookah parlors are allowed, they are required to follow strict guidelines and they cannot serve young people under the age of 18.
But Tehelka investigation reveal how several hookah cafes sell shisha tobacco to minors despite knowing fully well it is illegal. The investigation exposed how the manager of Club 21 readily agreed to host a hookah party for underage customers promising varieties of tobacco, from very mild to very strong, and playing fast and loose with the health of minors. It is to be mentioned that shisha smoking is no less dangerous than cigarettes. This is precisely the reason why West Bengal government recently banned hookah bars in Kolkata citing adverse impact hookah smoking has on public health.