Karnataka Health Minister Dinesh Gundu Rao has made it amply clear that the state government will amend the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) 2003 and make it so stringent and watertight that hookah bar operators won’t be able to get the order reversed in their favour in courts.
“It’s a matter of health. There will be absolutely no compromise on that front. We are looking at making more amendments to the COTPA law so that we can make it more enforceable and very stringent. They may want to challenge it in the courts, but we are very clear that despite the appeal from the sellers of hookah and shisha, the ban will not be revoked,” Rao told News18.
An official ban was imposed on February 3 this year after the state health department received several complaints from parents and various sections of the society seeking a blanket ban on hookah products in the state, citing ill-effects on the health of children and young adults.
COTPA would also be amended in Karnataka to allow only those above the age of 21 buy tobacco products as against the current minimum age requirement of 18.
“According to studies, 45 minutes of hookah smoking is equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes and is cited as harmful to health. According to the report of the World Health Organization, hookah is an addictive substance, which contains nicotine or molasses and flavouring substances containing a large amount of carbon monoxide, which is very harmful to health,” the order stated.
Close on the heels of Karnataka, Telangana also unanimously passed the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) (Telangana Amendment) Bill 2024, which prohibits hookah parlours from operating with immediate effect.
In Karnataka, the government amended the COTPA and imposed a ban on sales, consumption, possession, and advertising of hookah products across the state.
“We are not sure what additives are put in hookahs, and there is no body that monitors it, plus it was being made available in public places, like restaurants and bars, and could cause health hazards to people around. It is like allowing smoking there and is a huge health hazard from passive smokers,” Rao told News18.
Karnataka made it clear that hookah bars or places serving them not only pose as a health hazard but also put people at risk of the spread of various communicable diseases like Covid-19, hepatitis, herpes, and tuberculosis, in addition to being a fire hazard.
Bengaluru had last year witnessed a massive fire break out at a hookah cafe on the fourth floor of a building in Koramangala. The fire started from the coal stored at the illegal hookah centre, which only had a food licence.
The order issued by the government categorised hookah as a tobacco product under COTPA and nicotine as ‘poison’ under the Karnataka Poisons Rules 2015.
Dr (Prof) US Vishal Rao, member of the High Power Committee on Tobacco Control, Government of Karnataka, pointed out that hookah bars face scrutiny for exploiting a loophole in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) system. They attempt to evade the prescribed 28% GST rate and a 72% cess, also known as a ‘sin tax’, by including hookah in their food and beverage offerings.
“The strategy employed by hookah bars involves presenting hookah as a component of food and beverages, thereby subjecting it only to a 5% GST. Proponents of this approach argue that hookah can be classified as an ‘article for human consumption’, allowing it to fall under the lower tax bracket,” he said, adding that ‘hookah’ has been recognised for significant health risks, including potential harm to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Mohammed Danish, president of the Shisha Cafes and Restaurants Association, told the media that the association had filed writ petitions before the High Court against the ban. The body had claimed that over 25,000 people were employed by these hookah bars, and all of them would be rendered jobless because of the blanket ban.
Claiming that there are over 900 hookah bars in Karnataka, 500 of which are located in Bengaluru, Danish said many of the hookah bars were built on loans from banks and the ban has led to major losses.