Author: Mr. Rajesh Kalra is the “Category Champion – Smoking Tobacco”
The hookah has been around for almost half a millennium. While it is believed that the hookah traces its origins to 15th century India when it was a crude coconut shell contraption, many largely associate it with the Middle East and the intricately designed nargiles. Today the trend of hookah bars is global, with people across the Americas, Europe and Asia smoking shisha as a social engagement.
Before expanding on the finer details of the shisha industry, both from a manufacturer standpoint and a consumer’s perspective, we could delve briefly into understanding what shisha is and how it has evolved over time.
The evolution of shisha
The tobacco used for smoking hookah pipes is different from the type used in cigarettes. Shisha was originally produced as a damp blend of tobacco leaves dipped in molasses or honey. Today, with a rapidly expanding industry and varying user demands, shisha tobacco is mixed with fruit extracts and other flavours. The shisha tobacco used for hookah smoking has a tobacco component of only about 30%, with many variants being completely free of tar.
Shisha: the innovation story
Conventionally, shisha has been produced as a carefully crafted combination of molasses and tobacco – a semi-wet cake-like mixture with flavour being added. But with large tobacco manufacturing companies venturing into the shisha production space, years of expertise in the art of tobacco coupled with technical expertise and an innovation-driven approach have resulted in shisha taking newer and more creative forms.
- Shisharoma/steam stone: Doesn’t burn out unlike tobacco products. Soaks up the flavour and aroma of glycerine and vapourises them upon heating.
- Shisha gel: Made of hydroponic gel, it also uses the other conventional ingredients of honey, glycerine and flavour.
- Sugarcane shisha: Sugarcane fibre is used as the binding agent, to which flavours and glycerin are added
- Tea shisha: Made with tea leaves instead of tobacco leaves. Companies with tea and tobacco manufacturing capabilities are known to capitalize on multiple manufacturing strengths and cross-product innovation to create such offerings.
Historically shisha tobacco was smoked in a hookah devoid of flavours. When it gradually became a social activity in the middle East, it was considered fashionable for women to be seen smoking a hookah. This addition of an element of luxury led to minor additions to already evolving hookah designs – such as putting in small fruits like berries in the glass water bowl of the hookah. It became enjoyable to watch the berries dance in the bubbling water, while experiencing added flavour in the smoking experience. Since then, shisha production has diversified, with shisha tobacco and herbal shisha being available in hundreds of flavours.
While the prevalence and preference of flavours do vary across geographies, some have emerged as global favourites. Melons, citric fruits, spices, paan, gum, vanilla and cigar tasting shisha are in demand across the world.
Shisha smoking: a global trend
The practice of smoking shisha has today metamorphosed into a global trend with countries across Europe, America and Asia witnessing the emergence of hookah bars in all major cities. Once deemed a statement of fashion and wealth in the middle East, a session of shisha smoking today ranges from a casual evening out with friends to even a private session at home, thanks to the easy availability of hookas and shisha in dozens of flavours. Users also see this range and availability of flavour as an opportunity and medium to express individuality. And just like any trend in the digital age, shisha smoking too has found its niche in the virtual world. Shisha lovers’ groups and forums online have become a melting pot of choices, ideas and opinions on flavours, products and innovation.
The growing preference for shisha is evident from market findings which indicate that shisha alone accounts for 80% of the global pipe tobacco market at 4.48 billion USD (Estimated)
Middle East and Africa cover 70% of world’s Shisha market indicating maximum consumption is in this region. Germany and USA are also 2 growing markets (12.76% S.O.M)
The shisha market continues to grow despite regulatory clampdowns and efforts to close down hookah bars or shisha cafes. Despite the increase in public smoking bans, the shisha sector has witnessed growth with a projected average CAGR of 4.8% in the leading markets till 2019. Rising cigarette costs, innovative shisha flavours, perception that shisha is a more socially acceptable form of smoking and a resurgence of the need to identify with tradition, especially among smokers in the early 20s have contributed to the steady increase in shisha consumption.
Amidst this growing global trend of shisha consumption, Indian tobacco manufacturers have been catering to demand from across the world. Indian manufactured shisha is imported by countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, South Africa, Libya, Brazil, Singapore and the US among others.
For shisha manufacturers, a combination of internal and external factors continues to propel sales and create an ecosystem for product innovation.
- Availability: Increased demand thanks to additional services by existing industries/facilities. For e.g., restaurants started offering hookah sessions as a mode of business growth
- Affordability: Cheaper than cigarettes, a 50gm shisha pack can last for a 1-1.5 hour hookah session
- Sensory qualities: Varying flavours differentiate it from a cigarette and additional factors like huge clouds of smoke and the bubbling sound act as motivators
- Media influence: Portrayal of shisha smoking as glamorous, enjoyable and cool
- Innovation: Continued innovation means increased marketability
- Choice: Variety of flavours attractive to both men and women
But easy availability of any product also means a parallel explosion of producers to meet a growing demand. Given the simplicity of ingredients required to make shisha (tobacco, binding agent like molasses, honey, treacle, sugar or vegetable glycerol and fruit flavouring), makeshift shisha producing units have propped up by the hundreds. These units don’t always maintain hygienic conditions and the origin and quality of ingredients can sometimes be suspect.
Regulatory authorities in various countries have discovered and shut down such units that don’t adhere to any regional or international standards.
The explosion of interest in Shisha has led to some of the largest companies in the tobacco space taking an interest in the category. Consequently, manufacturing best practices which ensure a standardization of production processes while adhering to international quality and hygiene norms have been introduced. All ingredients are responsibly sourced with the entire process being completely mechanized and untouched by hand. This has led to the category getting a new lease of life and finding greater acceptance in many more geographies across the world.