AIR Global is revolutionizing shisha smoking with a mixture of technology and tradition.
By George Gay
As anybody who has tried it will be aware, dabbling with tradition is usually fraught, but it can be done successfully provided the rituals of the tradition remain largely the same and any changes introduced are aimed exclusively at improving the experience of taking part in the traditional activity. This idea came to mind while taking part in a Q&A with Ronan Barry, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer at Advanced Inhalation Rituals Global (AIR Global), because the focus at one point turned to the company’s latest product, OOKA, which Barry described as the “future of shisha.”
Tobacco Reporter: Can you describe what sets OOKA apart and the philosophy behind it?
Ronan Barry: With OOKA, we’ve successfully blended the rich traditions of shisha with cutting-edge technology, offering a shisha experience like no other. Our philosophy at AIR Global revolves around pushing the boundaries of traditional shisha experiences, with a particular focus on reducing toxicants in shisha aerosol while delivering cleaner, more consistent and higher quality inhalation rituals.
Before you go into the details of OOKA, could you briefly describe traditional shisha consumption?
Traditionally, flavored shisha involves the heating of the shisha mixture rather than burning, setting it apart from combustible tobacco products. Shisha itself is a moist mixture comprised primarily of glycerin and fructose and a relatively small amount of tobacco. The mixture heats to a temperature of about 200 degrees Celsius, creating vapor that is fundamentally different from tobacco smoke. However, the conventional heat source is charcoal, which does burn and emits toxicants such as carbon monoxide. These emissions can, depending on how the shisha is set up, penetrate the waterpipe device and also pollute indoor environments.
But your new product is different?
Very much so. Our latest innovation, OOKA, introduces a revolutionary concept. It is the world’s first pod-based, charcoal-free shisha device, which heats the molasses in a micro-oven powered by a rechargeable battery. Its innovative heating element, in collaboration with an integrated microchip, heats the shisha to its optimal temperature. This ensures users enjoy a consistent and pleasurable experience, drawing a parallel to the precision that coffee enthusiasts seek in achieving the perfect brew. Importantly, OOKA’s innovative design brings the traditional shisha ritual into the modern era by removing the need for charcoal to heat the shisha and, in turn, removing charcoal “smoke” from the experience. As such, OOKA provides the cleanest shisha experience available for both users and the environment. It offers, on average, a 94 percent reduction in a range of harmful chemicals and nondetectable levels of carbon monoxide.
Are there other advantages?
Certainly. The new system eliminates any inconvenience of preparation, ash and mess. It reduces the preparation time to five minutes—four times faster than conventional waterpipe devices on the market. The pods contain the prepared shisha, and OOKA’s smart technology monitoring system checks the temperature 25 times per second before it passes through the water for inhalation. This offers consumers the ease of a lounge experience at home at a drastically reduced price.
Would you describe your company briefly?
AIR Global, which was founded in 1999, is majority owned by London-based private equity firm Kingsway Capital. We are headquartered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), with offices in the U.S., U.K., the UAE, [the] KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], India, Poland and Germany, and factories in Ajman, [the] UAE and Poland. Reinhard Mieck is the CEO of AIR Global, which he joined in May 2021, bringing with him a wealth of experience from a 19-year career in FMCG and nine years in the luxury industry.
Is AIR Global a profitable company?
Yes. Our growth over the years is a testament to our commitment to innovation, product quality and customer satisfaction. Partly by expanding our customer base to more than 100 countries today, we have consistently outperformed the market. We are currently the leading company in the global shisha market, with 47 percent market share. Beyond our current success, we envision significant long-term growth, reflecting the promising future of the entire shisha category. Presently, the global shisha market is valued at $19 billion, and by 2026, it is forecasted to rise to $22 billion, underscoring the potential for continued expansion and innovation.
What products do you offer beyond OOKA?
The most significant is Al Fakher, the world’s leading brand of shisha molasses. We have recently launched Shisha Kartel, the fastest-growing shisha brand in Europe, and we offer Zodiac, which is a non-nicotine, nontobacco tea-based product. Our influence extends to various aspects of the shisha industry, and through our online platforms, such as Hookah-Shisha.com in the U.S. and Shisha World in Europe, we sell a range of shisha devices and accessories. In particular, we promote the use of heat management devices in place of aluminum foil in the setup of a shisha session to deliver a cleaner shisha cloud with minimal toxins to every consumer.
Where, geographically, does AIR Global currently sell its products? Is that geographical spread increasing or decreasing?
AIR Global currently sells its products in more than 100 countries, showcasing our global reach and commitment to serving diverse communities. While the Middle East, the United States, Europe and Africa are our largest markets, our presence continues to expand.
Are AIR Global’s volumes increasing or decreasing, and is this increase or decrease driven by particular markets?
Our sales volumes have been on an upward path, reflecting the appeal of our innovative products such as OOKA. The launch of OOKA made a significant impact, with its charcoal-free and smoke-free design. In fact, OOKA achieved remarkable success in the UAE, where it quickly sold out within a month of launching due to its unique appeal. Our dedication to innovation and product quality continues to drive growth and customer satisfaction in various markets.
Are consumer preferences changing, especially perhaps in respect of shisha flavors?
Consumer preferences are evolving in respect of shisha, and our commitment to staying ahead of these preferences ensures that we continue to provide an exciting and evolving range of shisha flavors to satisfy our customers. Shisha enthusiasts today have a growing appetite for a wider range of flavors and experiences. This has driven us to expand our flavor offerings and introduce innovative options that cater to diverse tastes, such as Zodiac nicotine-free tea-based shisha flavors, which come in both the traditional shisha format as well as in pods designed for the OOKA system, making this shisha experience available to a wider audience. We anticipate substantial growth in the nicotine-free segment, similar to the trend toward alcohol-free beers, wines and spirits.
How does the regulatory landscape for shisha look?
The fundamental differences between shisha and other tobacco and nicotine products are increasingly appreciated by regulators. Recently, the state of California prohibited all flavored tobacco and nicotine products but created a specific exemption for shisha. The reasons for this were the social and cultural importance of shisha as well as the fact that it is not conducive to youth use and tends to be consumed occasionally rather than compulsively. The global average consumption frequency among regular shisha users is two sessions per week.
Do you have any idea of the age profile of shisha users?
External sources, such as data published by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] annually in the United States, demonstrate that shisha is very much an adult-oriented pastime. For several years now, the rate of experimentation by minors with shisha has been in the low single digits and the lowest among tobacco and nicotine products. This is not surprising as shisha is a time-consuming ritual, usually enjoyed in social settings, and cannot be consumed inconspicuously or on the go.
Why do people consume shisha?
People consume shisha for various reasons, making it a multifaceted experience. Shisha is often a cultural and social ritual that brings people together. It serves as a means of relaxation, enjoyment of diverse flavors and a platform for engaging in conversations with friends and family. The rich heritage and centuries-old tradition associated with shisha contribute to its appeal, fostering a sense of connection and shared experience among enthusiasts.
Given the often strongly social aspects of shisha consumption, did the pandemic have a negative effect on sales?
Yes and no. On the one hand, social engagement was limited during the pandemic; shisha bars were closed in many countries, and that did have an impact. On the other hand, border closures had the effect of substantially cutting down smuggling, which was a boon to legally operating businesses and mitigated some of the negative impacts of the pandemic.
Are counterfeit products a major problem in respect of shisha markets?
Counterfeit products can be a concern in the shisha market, and we take this issue very seriously. The production of counterfeit shisha products creates multiple risks to consumers and can tarnish the reputation of legitimate manufacturers. We are committed to addressing this problem through a multifaceted approach to protect the health and safety of end users and uphold industry standards. For instance, the OOKA pod system incorporates patent-protected smart technology and a counterfeit-resistant design. It uses RFID [radio-frequency identification] technology for heating profiles, an NFC [near-field communication] chip to ensure only AIR Global-approved pods work with OOKA, 128-bit AES [advanced encryption standard] encryption to prevent counterfeit pods from functioning, and microchips for traceability.
How is shisha taxed relative to other tobacco products, and do taxation levels play any part in exacerbating the illegal trade?
Shisha is often unfairly taxed in relation to other tobacco products because of the outdated approach of taxation based on weight. This practice fails to consider the unique characteristics of shisha, which include a significantly lower presence of tobacco and toxicants compared to combusted tobacco. Shisha should be classified as a distinct category with its own taxation framework that doesn’t penalize the weight of nontobacco ingredients in the product. Adopting a more considered taxation system that aligns with the nature of shisha would not only protect consumers from unfair taxation but would also help address the issues of black market and counterfeit shisha products, ensuring the health and safety of end users while preserving government revenue.
Finally, are there going to be any major changes to AIR Global or the way it operates in the near future?
As a forward-looking company, we are continually exploring opportunities for growth and innovation. Our commitment remains unchanged—to deliver the highest quality products and services to our customers. Our focus continues to be on pushing the boundaries of the shisha experience, ensuring that we stay at the forefront of the industry and continue to offer unparalleled shisha experiences.