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Why shisha bars in France are attracting a devoted Gen Z clientele

Hookah, waterpipe, shisha… no matter what you call it, its use has increased dramatically in the last 15-20 years, to the point of becoming a particularly popular practice for many Gen Zers.

According to a 2006 World Health Organisation report, 100 million people around the world use shisha daily, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But since the 2000s, hookah has made its way to young Westerners.

In 2014, a United States survey by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control noted that the use of alternative tobacco products, such as shisha, had increased by 123% among adolescents in the US.

Meanwhile the consumption of cigarettes among young Americans has been declining in recent years.

A similar observation can be made among young French people. Santé Publique France (the French national health agency) noted in 2017 in its study on smoking behaviour in late adolescence, that at least one in two 17-year-olds had already tried smoking shisha.

In 2007, a hookah trade union was formed in the country in response to the ban on smoking in public establishments. At the time, the union counted 800 establishments listed throughout France. No new information is available on its numbers today.

However, shisha bars and the use of hookah have gone increasingly mainstream in the country over the last few years, thanks in particular to rap culture as showcased in this genre – essentially near-private performances by artists – are hot tickets in these establishments.

This has contributed to a large proportion of young people in the country embracing these spaces, much in the way the bistros of last century were meeting places where groups would gather to converse over food and drink.

Friendly encounters

When not consumed in a private space, shisha is smoked in dedicated bars – mostly dimmed spaces, with comfortable seats. Smoking shisha is a time for relaxation, as well as for discussions and sharing stories, because smoking shisha requires time. And so these spaces often become a kind of second home to regulars who come to exchange, discuss, debate.

In an article published in The Conversation, researcher Samy Mansouri outlines that the preparation of the hookah requires a long “time space”, as shisha doesn’t correspond to the same codes as the cigarette break.

According to Santé Publique France’s study on the modes of consumption of shisha dating from 2007, consumers spend between 30 and 50 minutes around a hookah object.

And according to the same study, 80% of shisha consumers smoke in groups, and in 84.6% of cases, they mainly smoke in groups in the evening or on weekends. The researcher emphasises that the long burn time of the tobacco allows for many debates to be started, across many subjects.

Stereotype of a generation?

In France, there are certain stereotypes associated with shisha bar customers. In Lille, shisha bar 22 Club refuses entry to anyone wearing jogging suits, reports regional daily La Voix du Nord, in a bid to break away from clichés and change the image of the shisha bar in the minds of many who associate them with young people in jogging suits from working-class neighbourhoods.

Mehdi Meklat, who co-organises an artistic festival called “Les Chichas de la pensée”, wants to deconstruct the stereotypes about suburbs and their residents, both often associated with hookah bars.

For Meklat, the shisha bar is rather a space for a generation where meetings, discussions and games take place. A kind of bistro for 2021 in a society where urban culture is of key importance to youths. – AFP Relaxnews

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