'Lawless' shisha bars need licensing to tackle serious crime and weak smoke-free laws

Licensing powers are needed to help councils tackle shisha bars that repeatedly flout smoking and fire safety laws, and in the worst cases are linked to organised crime, town hall leaders urge today.

Smoke cloud

Licensing powers are needed to help councils tackle shisha bars that repeatedly flout smoking and fire safety laws, and in the worst cases are linked to organised crime, town hall leaders urge today.

The number of shisha bars has more than trebled in recent years with more than half of councils now having a bar or café open in their area.

But the increase has caused misery for residents living near rogue premises linked to persistent anti-social behaviour, and has led to concern about the health impacts of shisha. 

Shisha premises that illegally allow indoor smoking or allow those under 18 to smoke the flavoured tobacco can currently be tackled using smoke-free laws.

However, the LGA said that prosecutions are taking up to a year and bar owners are increasingly undeterred by one-off fines of up to £2,500. This leaves councils struggling to regulate persistent offenders who can easily reopen shisha cafes under a new name.

In some cases, shisha bars – which can be multi-storey buildings catering for as many as 400 patrons – are not only flouting smoking laws, but are breaching fire safety legislation and causing major disturbances through anti-social behaviour and have even been the scenes of shootings. Shisha is also often imported illegally and sold without duty.

The true ownership of shisha premises is often deliberately secretive, which hinders the ability of councils and police to take effective action against them.

The LGA, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, is calling for government to modernise the list of activities councils can ‘opt-in’ to licence.

This would provide flexibility for individual councils to adopt local licensing schemes to cover modern and emerging risks, such as shisha bars, if there are concerns about how they are operating.

Councils could then vet licence holders in advance of premises opening, more easily monitor shisha bars and cafes for harmful activity and seize equipment or revoke licences for repeat offenders breaching licensing conditions or breaking the law.

Giving individual councils the power to license shisha bars would also strengthen the ability of town hall public health teams to ensure owners work with them to educate customers about the misconception that smoking shisha is safer than smoking cigarettes.

According to the World Health Organisation, smoking a shisha pipe for one hour can be equivalent to smoking 200 cigarettes.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

“The growing popularity of shisha bars and the lawless way some of them are being run exposes the loopholes that exist in our out-dated and inflexible licensing system. The Government needs to make it easier for individual councils to regulate rogue shisha bars by giving them the power to license and regulate them in their areas.

“Most owners want to run their businesses responsibly but councils need tougher powers to take action against those deliberately exploiting the law due to gaps between different frameworks. Smoke-free laws are not offering strong enough punishments to deter irresponsible shisha bar owners who are making lucrative profits, which means councils often need to carry out costly and lengthy investigations to take action against the same bar over and over again.

“Children often accompany adults in shisha bars and need protection from passively breathing in smoke which is especially toxic as it contains high carbon monoxide levels.

“We would always rather work with shisha bars to ensure they operate legally rather than prosecute them, but café owners are more likely to obey the law if they knew they might lose their licence.”

Case studies

A shisha café owner was ordered to pay £2,255 after customers were caught smoking indoors on two separate visits by enforcement officers following a prosecution by Redbridge Council which brought the case to court as part of a crackdown on shisha venues flouting the law.

The owners of two shisha cafes were ordered to pay a total of £2,900 after customers were found smoking shisha in substantially enclosed premises in both establishments, following a prosecution by Bolton Council.

Business owners repeatedly flouting the law by allowing smoking indoors have been fined a total of £41,000 since the start of an operation by Sheffield City Council which began in 2013. The team targets repeat offenders, resulting in seven prosecutions and more than £13,000 of fines in 2018 alone. They focus not only on smoking indoors but also unsafe premises, and the sale of tobacco to under-18s. The council is focusing on businesses that encourage smoking on their premises – with Shisha cafes being the worst offenders.

A police report of a shooting at a shisha bar in Birmingham can be read here.

  • The LGA’s #CouncilsCan campaign aims to influence the forthcoming Spending Review and highlight the growing risk to vital local services if the Government does not take action to secure the financial sustainability of councils
  • Shisha bars do not require a licence or registration unless they serve alcohol or have other regulated entertainment or serve food. Intervention by a wide range of stakeholders, including public health, environmental health and trading standards, is often required to achieve adequate enforcement of shisha bars.
  • Shisha smoking is covered by the UK smoking ban, meaning it is illegal to smoke the pipes inside cafes and bars. Those cafes with outdoor smoking shelters need roofs that are at least 50 per cent open so air can circulate. Bar owners and managers face fines of up to £2,500 for allowing smoking in a smoke-free place and up to £1,000 for not displaying a no-smoking sign.
  • In 2012, the British Heart Foundation revealed a 210 per cent increase in the number of shisha bars in the UK – up to 556 from 179 at the time of the smoking ban in 2007. It found 53 per cent of local authorities now have - or have had - a shisha bar since 2007, while more than 40 per cent have seen a rise in the number over the last four years.
  • The World Health Organisation states that:
    • Smoking a shisha pipe for one hours involves inhaling 100 to 200 times the amount of smoke inhaled with just one cigarette.
    • Heat sources used to burn the tobacco, such as wood cinders or tobacco, are likely to increase the health risks to smokers or passive smokers because they produce high levels of carbon monoxide.
    • Sharing a shisha pipe mouthpiece poses a serious risk of transmission of tuberculosis, herpes and hepatitis.
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