There are indeed sound health reasons for discouraging people from smoking shisha. The sweet flavour of tobacco mixtures, the misguided notion that water filtration can lower health risks, and the novelty of an Orientalist hookah pipe might attract the young and others. But a 45-minute smoking session is equivalent to as much smoke as that from 100 or more cigarettes, says the Health Promotion Board.
Potential health hazards provide sufficient grounds to restrict easy access to shisha. But one might well ask why a ban is necessary, covering its import, distribution and sale, when cigarettes are allowed here. It is not clear why heightened strategies of tobacco control are deemed insufficient for shisha - for example, higher taxation affecting both the tobacco and hubble-bubble equipment, regulation of tar and nicotine levels, strict sale restrictions, advertising prohibitions and, possibly the coup de grace, prohibition of smoking in all public places, including eateries, entertainment spots, clubs and hotels.
An overarching ban that also forbids individuals from bringing shisha into Singapore for personal consumption has a sledgehammer effect that critics assert is out of proportion to what is essentially a fringe activity, like the use of snuff tobacco.
Bans are blunt instruments that, in principle, should be harnessed only when other means of control are demonstrably ineffective, there is a grave threat to public health and safety, or when potential social repercussions are serious. These would justify zero tolerance on the part of the State and the community. However, when bans are applied liberally, these can turn into a default solution for a range of ills and might inadvertently breed a certain leaning towards intolerance among the populace.
Restrictions are likely to be accepted when the reasons are sound but a ban has a distinctly jarring ring to it.