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Legal loophole sees smoking return to Spanish bars, thanks to the hookah

Many youngsters are unaware of the health risks of smoke from these water pipes, which can be carcinogenic and contain other toxic substances, according to the World Health Organization

Patrons smoke a hookah in a bar in Granada, southern Spain.
Patrons smoke a hookah in a bar in Granada, southern Spain.Getty Images

The tobacco smoke that was eradicated from many public establishments in Spain is creeping back, thanks to the use of hookahs – or water pipes – that have so far managed to side-step the law.

They hide the tobacco in stools and false ceilings. And when they are inspected, they only show products that are nicotine free and permissible

In a bar in front of the Fuenlabrada University campus, south of Madrid, around 30 youngsters are smoking a hookah, an everyday occurrence. Wreathed in smoke, they drink and talk. Smoking, as far as they are concerned, is a group activity. And it is legal to do it inside because they are not smoking tobacco but nicotine-free alternatives, such as Shiazo, a mineral soaked in vegetable glycerin available in different flavors online.

The legal loophole is being exploited by a number of bars and cafés, which surreptitiously also offer tobacco to smoke. As soon as tobacco is involved, however, it is against the law, says a spokesman from the Civil Guard, which carried out two raids last year in Valencia and Malaga to combat the practice.

“It is happening all over Spain,” says Carlos Plaja, who took part in the Malaga operation, which saw 124 complaints filed and 91 venues inspected. “They hide the packets [of tobacco] in stools and false ceilings. And when they are inspected, they only show products that are nicotine free and permissible.”

International hookah fair

Seville is hosting an international hookah fair in June. The organizers have chosen Seville because they claim that the Spanish market is one of the biggest in the world. Among the main participants will be companies from the US and Brazil that specialize in tobacco for water pipes.

Penalties relating to the anti-tobacco laws are in the hands of the regional authorities. However, most are hazy when it comes to data on hookah use and infringement. The only region with any relevant data is Catalonia, where seven establishments have been fined so far this year.

Meanwhile, Civil Guard sources in Valencia recognize that there are too many establishments involved to police the problem properly. “It’s necessary to keep an eye on the market and the new products coming out related to tobacco,” says a spokesman for Murcia’s Health Department.

The problem is that hookahs are not seen as a health hazard. The trend appears to have been imported from the US, and bars like the one in Fuenlabrada are making the most of the legal loophole. “It’s a typical plan – beers and hookah,” says Victor, 21, an international relations student at Fuenlabrada.

A group of students are competing to see who can blow the best smoke ring. It looks like fun, but the smoke could be carcinogenic and contain other toxic substances that are harmful to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which points out that hookahs are used to smoke tobacco and other products that are far from innocuous.

I thought it was healthier because they sell it to you as if it was fruit

Jules, 20-year-old student

Pulmonologist and President of the Spanish Pulmonology and Thorax Surgery (SEPAR), Carlos Jiménez Ruiz, says that flavored glycerin products are not regulated and can lead to fibrosis. He also points out that a hookah session is the equivalent to smoking between 25 and 50 cigarettes.

“I thought it was healthier because they sell it to you as if it was fruit,” says Jules, a 20-year-old student when informed of the health hazards.

Doctors are also growing concerned that smoking water pipes will drive up the number of cigarette smokers as, according to Jiménez, it normalizes the activity.

The Tobacco Department of the Spanish Family and Community Medicine Society says there are an increasing number of people smoking both cigarettes and pipes in Spain, though data on the use of pipes is scarce. EDADES, the most recent survey on drug consumption carried out by the Health Ministry, failed to include it, recording only that cigarette smoking among young people has risen by 5%.

The PSOE proposed reforms to the anti-tobacco laws in March to cover the use of water pipes. Sources from the party say that the Health Minister María Luisa Carcedo is currently hoping to regulate the use of pipes in order to get them out of bars while SEPAR and the WHO would like to see the water pipe regulated in line with e-cigarettes.

“[E-Cigarettes] can’t be smoked in bars and restaurants because the law considers them to be a tobacco product. The hookah should be considered in the same way. It is smoked with tobacco as well as aromatic herbs and glycerin without nicotine,” says Jiménez.

“People don’t want glycerin, they want tobacco”

Carlos Plaja, an officer of the Civil Guard who was involved in the Malaga raids, explains that “people who go to these bars to smoke water pipes don’t want glycerin and other products without nicotine, they want tobacco.”

Fermented with fruit essences, Mu’assel is the most popular product for water pipes, due to its aroma, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The law in Spain only allows bars and cafés to sell tobacco in machines, but there are no cigarette machines in water pipe bars, according to Jesús Martín, a legal consultant for Legaltabac – just packets of hookah tobacco.

The tobacco packets used for the pipe actually carry false information on the nicotine and tar content, lowering both and omitting to say it is actually tobacco on the packet, according to the WHO.

“Legal procedures to validate the contents of water pipe products are lacking,” says the WHO report.

The police in Spain are demanding more control over this type of tobacco as much of it is being smuggled in. If the authorities can show that it is being sourced illegally, the fines on bars and cafés using it could rise to around €2,000 along with the premises in question being closed down for a week.

While the Málaga raid found 124 establishments infringing the law and the Valencia raid confiscated 200 packets of tobacco, profits are big enough to make the activity worthwhile, according to a Civil Guard spokesman in Valencia.

“It is the business of the century,” says the source. “A packet of the tobacco costs €3 and you can make three water pipes with that which are sold for between €20 and €60 each.”

Meanwhile, according to the WHO, “due to the low manufacturing costs of water pipe products and the minimal penalties applied compared to cigarettes, water pipes are viable.”

In the US, a survey revealed that 30.4% of university students had smoked a water pipe at some point, according to the WHO. Meanwhile in the UK, the figure lies between 7% and 11%.

María Díaz, 20, an Audio Visual Communications student at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, says that apart from going to hookah bars, she has a pipe at home that she uses even when she is studying.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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