Anti-tobacco advocates cite dangers of hookah smoking and its appeal to teens, but lounge owners say they provide a safe cultural experience
March 2, 2011 – Health advocates strongly support a bill that would shutter Oregon’s hookah lounges, citing their smoking-centric atmosphere and targeted marketing to youth.
But Middle Eastern hookah lounge owners claim that same bill would decimate their livelihood and take away a cornerstone of their culture.
“We’re not just talking about businesses at risk,” said Rami Jouni, the Lebanese owner of Beirut Hookah Lounge in Tigard. “There’s a whole culture that’s being attacked.”
Nothing in the language of House Bill 2726 mentions hookah lounges specifically, but its aim is clear: to close a loophole created by a 2007 amendment to the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, also known as the Smoke-Free Workplace Law, that allows the sampling of tobacco products at smoke shops and cigar bars for ‘retail decision-making.’
This amendment has been beneficial for business not just at smoke shops and cigar bars, but the numerous hookah lounges that have sprung up across the state since it took effect in early 2009.
People under 21 have flocked to the lounges, where anyone 18 or older can purchase flavored tobacco, known as shisha, and smoke it with friends out of a communal pipe in what many describe as a party atmosphere.
“This bill would clean up problems created unintentionally by the smoke shop exemption … that has allowed smoking dens and lounges to proliferate, and has created an unhealthy, unwholesome environment,” said Rep. Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie), who testified before the House Health Care Committee Friday in support of the bill.
Specifically, the bill requires that the sale of tobacco products and smoking instruments be solely for off-premise use, prohibits the sale of food or drink for on-premises consumption, and limits the number of seats for customers. It also allows the Oregon Health Authority to conduct unannounced inspections of smoke shops.
The bill’s proponents portrayed hookah lounges as health hazards, citing statistics from the state’s Tobacco Prevention and Education Program about the amount of smoke inhaled by hookah users in a typical session – the equivalent of 100 cigarettes – and how the recent decline in cigarette smoking among youth 18 and under has been matched by a corresponding increase in this group’s hookah tobacco smoking.
But they also portrayed hookah lounges not just as smoking dens, but dens of iniquity whose questionable social activities were marketed directly to impressionable young people.
Rep. Tomei and others showed slides of fresh-faced teens in clubbing clothes holding hookah pipes, and screen shots of the lounges’ Facebook status updates, urging kids to come out for jello wrestling and lingerie night.
“Tired of not being able to go out and dance or hang with your friends … since your [sic] not 21 and up?” asked one website featured in the slide show. “Well, head over to our lounge and smoke some shisha!”
Last year, the Oregon Health Authority’s Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention division sent its interns on undercover missions to scope out the scene at hookah lounges.
One of them, 23-year-old Rebecca Pawlak, told the House Health Care Committee Friday that she experienced “100 percent pressure to smoke” tobacco with youth-friendly flavors like banana split and vanilla latte.
“You couldn’t be in the lounges without purchasing tobacco,” said Pawlak, “and they often had drinks or cover charges, creating a club-like atmosphere.”
This atmosphere didn’t appeal to Sierra Langford, who attends Southridge High School in Beaverton and who volunteers with a group that teaches teens about the health risks of hookah smoking.
“I care about youth not partaking in risky behaviors,” said Langford, who added that she’d seen photos of Facebook of classmates under 18 at hookah lounges.
A host of hookah lounge owners spoke out passionately against the bill.
Describing hookah lounges as “the Starbucks of the Middle East,” Jouni said that he opened his business “to introduce people to my culture in the United States, my new home.” He added that he and other hookah lounge owners had worked hard to comply with state regulations before opening their doors, and always checked patrons’ IDs.
Maher Makboul, who owns Sultan Hookah Lounge in Portland, said that the Department of Human Services “put us through hell” to get a license, even though he followed protocol, and accused the agency of trying to put him and other hookah lounge owners out of business.
“You call this a loophole? It’s what you put into law,” Makboul said. He stressed the economic impact closing the lounges would have on him and those he employs.
“I put over $80,000 into this,” said Makboul. “If I lose this, I’m done.”
To Learn More
Oregon Health Authority Tobacco Prevention and Education Program 2010 report on hookah smoking by Oregon youth (pdf): http://www.oregon.gov/DHS/ph/tobacco/docs/2010-icaa-compliance.pdf
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