Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

New Air for a New Age
Asiaweek, July 1998
Oxygen bars in Hong Kong

Remember when you thought bottled water was a passing trend? Take a deep breath, because the hip equivalent for the new millennium is possibly on its way to a street near you. Oxygen bars have already breathed new life into the health scene in the U.S— including Hollywood (of course)—and now they look set for Southeast Asia.

Hong Kong has already got its first. At Oxyvital, customers can whiff 99.9% pure medical grade oxygen for 20 minutes – either in a private room (for $23), or, more publicly, in a tiny but streamlined bar done up in a sort of Scandinavian chic decor ($15). And if plain oxygen sounds blah, the bar offers nine fruity flavors that are supposed to relieve urban disorders.

Tired and depressed ? Orange flavoured oxygen will perk you up. Suffering from a hangover, jet lag or a migraine? Apple will help clear your head. Got the sniffles? Lemon is supposed to cure a cold. Fat and unfit? Banana will make you feel slimmer. Can’t concentrate? Carrot will put you back on track. For your money, you also get color therapy, aromatic oils, New Age music and fresh fruit juice (to drink) – all adding up to what Oxyvital touts as “a 20 minute vacation for the body and soul.”

Some call it just another yuppie fad. But if it is, it’s also sound business. Oxygen bars have multiplied rapidly across Canada, the U.S. and Japan. North America’s first bar, the O2 spa, launched in Toronto in March 1996, was so successful the owners have now opened branches in Los Angeles and New York, with plans to launch a U.S.- wide chain of franchises. Hollywood stars, never slow to sniff out a trend, are jumping on the bandwagon. Actor Woody Harrelson opened his own bar in Los Angeles in 1997, while Kirstie Alley, Jeff Goldblum and Julia Roberts are said to be fans.

Oxyvital’s owner, Austrian Ilse Massenbauer-Strafe, 35, is a former hotel executive. Her aim, she says, is to provide customers with the oxygen they are being deprived of by living in Hong Kong. “While normal oxygen levels are about 21%, people in Hong Kong only get about 16% because of the pollution,” she says. “Oxyvital aims at making up this deficit.”

Some people call that a load of hot air. “Oxygen levels usually stay constant; it’s the level of pollutants that goes up,” says John Hodgkiss, a professor with the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of Hong Kong. “People don’t suffer from a lack of oxygen, but from the adverse effect of pollutants.”

So what is in a lungful of Hong Kong air? The brief answer is poisons galore. The Environmental Protection Department monitors daily levels of seven different pollutants, including respirable suspended particulates – fine particles of dust that can penetrate the lungs. These can cause respiratory diseases, aggravate cardiac illness and asthma and irritate sensory organs. Air pollution is believed to cause 2,000 premature deaths a year in Hong Kong. While controls on vehicle emissions have led to a recent decrease in lead and sulfur-dioxide pollution, Hodgkiss thinks there is a limit to what can be done to control pollution. “China is going through enormous industrial expansion. There’s not much we can do about that.”

Pollution may be here to stay, but does oxygen help? Most medical opinion says no. “If you are healthy, you really don’t need it. And if you are unhealthy, it could actually do you harm,” says Dr. Joseph Pang, a Hong Kong pulmonologist. According to him, people with lung problems should not breathe pure oxygen, even for a short while. It could irritate their lungs, he says. A spokesman for the Department of Health says; “Our advice is that for normal people, inhaling oxygen will not bring any additional benefits, though we have no evidence that it causes harm.”

Some doctors believe that the apparent benefits of oxygen bars are due to the naturally calming effect of deep breathing in a clean and smoke free environment, and not to the oxygen itself. “While there are no real physiological benefits, there may be some psychological advantage,”says Dr.Pang Shiu-fun, a professor or physiology at the University of Hong Kong. “If you think something is going to help you de-stress, if probably will.” The U.S. Food and Drugs Administration has approved oxygen treatment for specific problems, including migraine and carbon-monoxide poisoning. But it warns against prolonged and unsupervised use at high dosages.

Massenbauer-Strafe agrees that the sessions are for the healthy only, and says that Oxyvital guards against over dosage. That is why sessions are restricted to 20 minutes and the air flow is maintained at a steady four liters a minute. Oxyvital’s equipment has been installed by an engineering company and certified as safe by government inspectors. All customers have to sign disclaimers stating that they do not suffer from emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Massenbauer-Strafe says a session at Oxyvital provides “the same amount of fresh air you would receive if you were sitting in a forest.” She is unperturbed by the medical profession’s skepticism, pointing out that acupuncture and aromatherapy – once thought of as flaky gimmicks – are now widely accepted. Massenbauer – Strafer takes a daily 20 minutes session and says it gives her energy. “Do I look sick to you?” she asks. Not at all. She looks almost aggressively healthy.

Whatever the scientific truth, Masenbauer-Strafe appears to have accurately judged the appeal of a sanctuary from smog and stress. She maintains Oxyvital has had an average of 30 customers a day since it opened in April. Most appear to be harried yuppies working in the nearby business area and seeking a quick escape from the manic work week. “It makes for a good break in the middle of a testing day and it’s cheaper than a drink in a local bar.” says Peter, 34, a financial analyst and first time client who plans to return. Comments in the guest book are mostly favorable, with “refreshing” and “relaxing” dominating, though one “ridiculous” does stand out. As for side effects, some say they feel disoriented for a short while afterwards. “I felt quite ‘spacey’ and a bit wobbly on my legs for about an hour, like I was coming out of a dark room into bright lights,” says Jackie, an ex-stockbroker in her mid-30s.

Massenbauer-Strafe is now contemplating an “oxyhour,” similar to the happy hour cheap drinks offered by bars. Will discounted oxygen and fruit juice replace cocktails and canapes among the hip set? Stranger things have happened.