“They see us as tobacco companies – and we are different from them.” Interview with the The European Shisha Community Alliance
Hookah Battle spoke with representatives of the European Alliance of the Hookah Community: one of the largest hookah associations in Europe. We talked about working with government agencies in the European Union and about the work of hookah lounges in the post-covid period.
Hookah Battle: Tell us about the ESCA. What is its purpose? How did the idea come about?
ESCA is the European Hookah Community Alliance, a trade body set up to represent the hookah value chain throughout the European Union – manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, lounge owners. The purpose of ESCA is to give a voice to the hookah community in the legislative debate and to demonstrate that hookah is a uniquely cultural product which is enjoyed socially and occasionally. Hookah is the original heated tobacco product.
Hookah Battle: Who has already joined? What are the big companies?
Already we have around 140 members, all from a number of EU countries.We also have partnerships or relationships with a number of other hookah related associations in Europe or internationally for example in the United States and Russia.
Hookah Battle: Tell us about your major accomplishments.
We are a new organization. We started in 2020 but the pandemic slowed down our growth plans as many of the hookah lounges were closed for a significant period and were unable to sign up. So we have had to adapt our strategy in 2021. Our members have been very active in using word of mouth to get more hookah businesses to sign up. Much of our stakeholder engagement has taken place online through virtual meetings and we have been active writing to government departments and responding to initiatives such as the European Commission’s Inception Impact Assessment on tobacco taxation. We also publish a monthly report on key hookah related legal and regulatory topics in Europe that members find particularly informative.
Hookah Battle: How was 2020? How has ESCA been affected by the pandemic?
2020 was a tough year for everyone, including the hookah sector and unfortunately there is no relief so far in 2021 – many of our members have been unable to operate, namely lounges due to the restrictions that have been put in place and some retailers who have had to remain shut due to the non-essential nature of their business.
ESCA has had to work hard with its members to try to ensure that hookah bars and lounges are afforded the same opportunities for reopening as others in the hospitality sector. We have outlined strict hygiene procedures for our members to follow and for them to promote, which they have done. Everyone wants to get back to some semblance of normality and all of our members are fully committed to upholding extensive hygiene standards to ensure their customers are protected and feel safe.
Hookah Battle: How have you been working with the government? Do you see support and understanding from officials? What are the main difficulties in interacting with them?
We have been meeting virtually online with government officials and politicians in some EU Member States. You will be very surprised how many of the people have tried hookah (for example once on holiday in Turkey or Dubai) but also have no idea what it is and how it worked. For example many of the government members we speak to don’t know that it´s only 15% to 25% tobacco or that it is heated and the aerosol consists of 60% water vapour.
The main issue we face is that we are seen as the same as `Big Tobacco cigarette companies´ despite not being like them at all. Hookah is a very different product to cigarettes, and we employ open and transparent engagement. We are proud of our long and cultural history and the community and products we represent. Hookah brings people together and its use is infrequent. The revenue the sector generates is spread amongst the hookah community and doesn’t all go directly to large international corporations.
We do experience some support but what we have found is a real lack of understanding of the product. People see tobacco and adopt a negative perception. When we inform them of the product, the community behind it and the culture and history their eyes are opened and they gain a better understanding. They start to recognize the importance of flavours to the category, that excessive taxes can push the sector further underground and that hookah should be considered as a completely unique product within the wider tobacco category.
Hookah Battle: In your experience, how should hookah lounges work with official regulatory organizations? What should you pay attention to, are there any typical mistakes in the work.
I think particularly now during the COVID pandemic and soon during the “after-COVID” period lounges must be very strict with implementing the correct hygiene standards. There are some really good examples, particularly in Russia, where the Hookah Union is working to establish official standards for lounges. This is a very important step that I hope we can also look to do in Europe one day.
For Europe specifically, there have been some small benefits from COVID. For example, consumers are now much more used to outdoor venues in general. In countries and regions where it is not permitted to smoke indoors, they may now be able to set up outdoor hookah lounges with rain covers and heaters and consumers are now very used to this as a result of COVID.
Hookah Battle: Tell us about your plans for 2021.
We plan to continue with our expansion and ensure sufficient representation of the hookah value chain, to continue to inform the media, the public and regulators about the unique nature of hookah and demonstrate that it is a force for social good and to work towards promoting the positive side of the sector and ensuring that those who operate legitimate businesses are given a fair chance and have a voice.
Hookah Battle: How do you see the hookah industry developing in Europe? Is it developed compared to other countries, what could be the point of growth?
We think hookah will continue to grow in Europe for many years both at home and in the lounges. It will remain very small compared to cigarettes, roll your own and new technologies such as heat not burn (IQOS) or vaping but it does have a very loyal following that will continue to enjoy hookah.
Hookah Battle: What is the trend of hookah smoking in Europe?
Hookah is a niche product in Europe and whilst it is popular amongst migrant communities who have brought aspects of their culture with them, it is quite popular amongst a number of native Europeans, particularly in Spain and Germany. It is used occasionally as a social product for people to enjoy with friends and family – that aspect translates across cultures.
Hookah Battle: What are the general statistics on hookah use in Europe?
Hookah represents a very small percentage of the overall tobacco use in Europe. The most recent EU Eurobarometer Survey concluded that its use is occasional with 0% of respondents using hookah daily, 1% using it weekly and 1% using it monthly.
Hookah Battle: What bans have been imposed on the hookah industry?
Under the Tobacco Products Directive, which regulates tobacco and nicotine products in the EU, hookah tobacco is subject to the same restrictions as cigarettes when it comes to packaging and labelling – therefore we are restricted in terms of the descriptions we can use on our packaging and graphic and text health warnings must occupy 65% of the pack. Whilst most tobacco products are subject to a characterizing flavour ban, hookah tobacco has been afforded an exemption to this. Of course this is crucial because the product is flavoured and any withdrawal of such an exemption would result in a ban of the category.
There are some additional restrictions in some EU Member States i.e. there is a menthol ban in Germany, Finland and Denmark.
Hookah Battle: How long ago did you start a partnership with Hookah Union “Assistance”?
We started talking to our friends in Russia at the end of 2020 and have had some very informative meetings with them in early 2021. We hope to continue to share knowledge and to cooperate with them in the future.
When COVID is over and we can all travel normally please come and say hello to us as we hope to have a presence at the fantastic hookah club show in St Petersburg!
Hookah Battle: How do you think uniting around the world will help hookah industry?
Hookah is a niche sector and is often a victim of the war against Big Tobacco. It is important that the industry unites, globally to ensure the hookah voice is heard. Hookah is cultural, occasional and social.
Hookah Battle: And finally, tell us a few words to our readers.
Finally, we would like to stress one point; Hookah has grown to become a big business and with that comes a certain level of responsibility. In Europe in particular, there is a spotlight on hookah from the European Commission with respect to regulations. There are too many examples of hookah tobacco flavour names, packaging or accessories that could be perceived as attractive to children. We believe the sector should work as one to eliminate cartoon imagery and candy names from all hookah products or accessories. Hookah is a social good for adults only. As it is a tobacco containing product, it must not be marketed towards minors. Such practice only serves to bring the sector into disrepute and raises real risks of a ban on the entire category. This jeopardises not just businesses in the sector but the rights of the hookah community to have access to legal hookah products. It is essential that we act responsibly and ensure that our products and communications are not intentionally or accidentally attractive to children.