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Russia's Tobacco Ban Takes the Buzz Out of Hookah Bars

A tobacco ban could pinch the lucrative business
Hookahs, also known as shishas, became a fixture of Moscow night life
Hookahs, also known as shishas, became a fixture of Moscow night lifePhotograph by Yevgeny Khazhei/Itar-Tass/Zumapress

In recent years, the late-night revelry wasn’t complete for many customers at Alexei Vasilchuk’s chain of trendy teahouses in Moscow until they’d gotten their nicotine fix with a few drags on a hookah, a long-stemmed water pipe. The practice is huge across Russia, with eating establishments taking in $600 million annually from offering hookah service, according to researcher RestConsult. But following Russia’s June 1 ban on tobacco smoking in public places, Vasilchuk’s Chaikona No 1 outlets no longer offer tobacco-based versions of the devices, also known as shisha, narghile, calean, or hubbly bubbly. Visitors can instead puff on steamy concoctions made with nicotine-free fruit mixes—without the customary buzz.

Because of the change, Russian bar owners’ revenue from offering hookahs may drop by a third, according to RestConsult, which estimates that the water pipes are offered at 40 percent of Moscow eateries. “Those who were nicotine-addicted are fleeing to other places that don’t comply with the law and keep tobacco hookahs illegally,” says Vasilchuk, who estimates that about 10 percent of Moscow restaurants aren’t obeying the new regulation.