Has the ban on shisha really worked?

Shisha bongs presented in court during sentencing of smokers on February 7, 2018./JOSEPH NDUNDA
Shisha bongs presented in court during sentencing of smokers on February 7, 2018./JOSEPH NDUNDA

If you have never taken shisha or don't smoke it, you are a not seen as a "cool" person in urban circles. One has to smoke it to prove their class, or else they will be branded a shagzmondo.

Shisha is the trend that hit Kenya and swept major towns, turning innocent souls into drug addicts in the name of trying to fit in. Shisha dens in city estates were patronised by teenagers from the age of 17 to adults over 50.

Shisha smokers suffered a major blow on December 28 last year, after former Health CS Cleopa Mailu banned it. Mailu said consumption had encouraged the peddling of hard drugs. The move ignited mixed reactions, with critics, including Tourism CS Najib Balala, claiming it was a 'miscalculated' move.

Kenya became the fourth country in East Africa to prohibit shisha, after Uganda (ineffectively), Tanzania and Rwanda. But even after the ban, shisha is still widely sold in the country, especially at nightclubs, and is popular among socialites and sportspersons.

The cost per bong ranges from Sh400-2,000, depending on the location. It is a booming business and sellers earn up to around Sh20,000 per day.


Shisha is a glass-bottomed water pipe in which fruit-flavoured tobacco is covered with foil and roasted with charcoal. The tobacco smoke passes through a water chamber and is inhaled deeply and slowly.

There are different types of shisha flavours, with strawberry, mint and double apple being the most popular. Users say it tastes good and smells sweet, and smoking it is relaxing. The sight of smoke billowing out of the mouth and nose is something of a fashion statement.

Experts warn that a single shisha session is the same as smoking hundreds of cigarettes. According to the World Health Organisation, the volume of smoke inhaled in an hour-long shisha session is estimated to be the equivalent of smoking between 100 and 200 cigarettes.

People gather for shisha smoking sessions at lounges, cafes, bars and some prefer to do it at home in a cool environment, just to enjoy it without any interference.

There is also e-Shisha, which is smoked below 45 degrees. In case it is smoked at temperatures above that, it can cause major harm to the users.

Moha, one of the shisha joint owners in Nairobi's Buru Buru area, says he has been it the business since 2013 and doesn't regret quitting his casual job.

"I used to work as a casual labourer in Industrial Area. The work there was so much and I used to earn peanuts, which was not enough for my family. A pal invited me out one day and there is where I knew about shisha. I tried it and liked it and from there, I developed interest and decided to try my luck in this business. And I'm glad I can afford a better life and give my family the best."

Moha is among the many Kenyans who are reaping big from the shisha business, despite the ban. But where does he get the products, and how does he knows if they are original or fake?

"I buy my flavours from a wholesaler in Eastleigh at affordable prices and I trust him. He is the top supplier and everyone buys from him. He imports the products from the Middle East," he said.


Alex, a bar owner in the city, says he was affected by the ban. "I used to make good money on a daily basis. My joint was always open and people would walk in any hour of the day to smoke as they chew khat (miraa) and moguka. But after the ban, the place is empty," he said.

"I even had to hide the bongs because at times police show up unannounced and when they find the bongs in the pub, they think I'm selling it illegally. I just hope that the ban will be lifted."

Anita (not real name), a city socialite, is also not happy with the ban. "I still don't understand why the government banned shisha. Why are they concerned with our health? Let them concentrate on paying the billions they owe China and not meddle in our business. Anyway, whether they lift the ban or not, shisha is life. I smoke it at home and in clubs," she said.

"I prefer shisha to cigarettes and weed. Anytime I go out and I don't have money, I buy shisha and smoke the whole night."

Another party animal, Pam, says the ban was uncalled-for, but she cannot dare smoke again because she is afraid she might be arrested.

"I remember very well I was arrested twice during the shisha raids in two different clubs in Kilimani area. I love shisha just as my fellow slay queens, but after the experience in the hands of the police, I swore that I would only stick to the brown bottle," she said.


Dr Daniel Rambei says he's aware that despite the ban, most smokers are still using shisha behind the scenes and warns that the effects are adverse.

He says shisha smokers are exposed to more carbon monoxide and smoke than cigarette smokers.

Shisha smoking has been linked to lung and oral cancers, heart disease and other serious illnesses. Shisha smoking delivers about the same amount of nicotine as cigarette smoking does, possibly leading to tobacco dependence.

Shisha smoke poses dangers associated with secondhand smoke. Shisha smoking by pregnant women can result in low birth weight babies. Young female smokers are often motivated more by the desire to stay thin or look cool than to avoid an illness in middle life.

The smoking pipes used in shisha bars and cafes may not be cleaned properly, risking the spread of infectious diseases, such as TB and hepatitis.

Shisha flavours can easily be laced with hard drugs sometimes without the knowledge of the smoker.

Shisha smoking has a significant impact on the respiratory system, and its use can have negative effects on the lung functions (amounts of oxygen inhaled carbon dioxide exhaled). Sportspersons who smoke it will not be able to perform well with diseased lungs.

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