E-shisha: How the new vaping pipe is rejuvenating the UK's shisha-bar scene

'This looks like you are smoking but it’s all legal and legitimate - it’s not healthy but it’s healthier'

It’s a Friday night in a dark lounge bar in London’s Soho and the scent of mangos and blueberries hangs heavy in the air. The Maison Touareg, a shisha bar and restaurant whose business was devastated by the smoking ban in 2007, is now enjoying a renaissance – thanks to the introduction of an innovative device known as the e-shisha.

The owners of the lounge, three Londoners, have bought the UK and European rights to the first electronic shisha head from the device’s Chinese manufacturer. Unlike a complete e-shisha pipe, the head can be used both with traditional water pipes and vaped like an e-cigarette.

Tapping into the trend for vaping and the boom in e-cigarettes, their company, Shisha Kingdom, is now supplying the e-shisha heads to businesses and individuals around the country and they hope it will help revive a once-vibrant scene.

The innovative e-shisha device (Teri Pengilley)

An estimated 800 shisha bars were forced to close after the change in the law in 2007 that made it illegal to smoke in all enclosed spaces, according to the National Association of Shisha Bar Owners (Nasbouk). Sam Mallach, co-founder and co-owner of Shisha Kingdom, said: “When the smoking ban came into effect, it wiped out around 30 per cent of sales but, after seeing the vaping craze everywhere, one of our former employees and friends stumbled upon the e-shisha. It looked really interesting and there was nothing of its kind around.”

Noemi Rudolf, 30, a Hungarian living and working in London, is out enjoying e-shisha with four friends. “I’m trying to give up smoking so I use e-products at home,” she said. “But this shisha is just for enjoyment tonight.”

Her friend Tannaz Goss, 32, said she likes the flavour of e-shisha. “You feel better because you know you’re not taking in as much nicotine as you would with regular shisha. It’s also great because you don’t have to go outside and stand in the cold, which I hated. It’s not just about smoking, it’s as much about the habit.”

Paul Johnson is a co-director of Nasbouk and an investor in a Leicester shisha bar called Marhaba. He said the e-shisha head “is a brilliant invention”, but he is concerned that health risks of traditional hookah pipes could be overestimated.

He added that, rather than the smoking ban stopping members of the Middle Eastern and Asian communities from smoking shisha, it forced the custom into people’s homes. The losers are the shisha bars, for whom the ban has been “absolutely devastating”.

Prior to the smoking ban, the bars reported that 75 to 80 per cent of their income came from shisha, according to a survey of Nasbouk members in 2013. Some 126 of the venues surveyed said they lost between 61 to 80 per cent of regular customers because of the ban.

Mr Mallach, who used to be a smoker but quit by using e-products, said that e-shisha is bringing in new customers and broadening the clientele from its traditional Middle Eastern base. Among Shisha Kingdom’s customers is the Clissold Arms, a traditional English pub in Finchley, north London.

“It creates a lot of vapour so it looks good,” Mr Mallach said, vaping on a mango-flavoured shisha. “This looks like you are smoking but it’s all legal and legitimate. It’s not healthy but it’s healthier,” he added. “Not enough research has been carried out yet to really say.”

Binit Patel, a GP, agreed: “E-shisha is likely to be safer than traditional shisha use in terms of direct health consequences,” he said. 

“However, this needs to be balanced with the risk of e-shisha attracting other users who would not have considered smoking traditional shisha.”

Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “We should adopt a precautionary approach to e-shisha until we know more, especially considering it is not regulated.

“E-cigarette use is developing rapidly and more research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits and risks to people’s health. Evidence on the use of e-shisha is harder to come by, though there have been reports of e-shisha sticks being used by children in school.

“Smoking tobacco products remains one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the UK.”