Hookah smoking “has been a quiet epidemic among college kids,” says Milford’s public health director Dennis McBride.
In 2009, McBride wanted to close a new hookah lounge in Milford, calling it a “public nuisance.” McBride’s worries brought it to the attention of zoning officials who discovered the lounge needed a special zoning permit. The lounge was ordered to close and had another zoning hearing this week (after this paper went to print), which could allow the club to open or prevent it from doing so.
Since then, McBride has become increasingly concerned about hookah smoke and has convinced Milford’s state Sen. Gayle Slossberg to enter legislation in the General Assembly that would require the state’s Department of Public Health to regulate hookah bars.
“We have a smoking ban for public places, and [hookahs] seem to be a real loophole in our health policy,” Slossberg says.
Hookah bars and lounges — where customers smoke flavored tobacco or herbs through an intricate glass and brass pipe that filters and cools the smoke through water — are a growing trend in Connecticut and across the country.
New Haven’s Mediterranea, a Middle Eastern restaurant on Orange Street, opened in 1999 and was the state’s first such lounge, says owner Omar Rejeh. He says other lounges started opening in the state in the mid 2000s.
The legislative proposal is still in its infancy — it’s unclear what oversight Slossberg might task the state Department of Public Health with. But she says her main concern is the health implications of hookah smoking.
It’s unlikely regulations would extend to head shops that sell hookahs, since concerns are about smoking in public, not private, places. It’s unclear if the proposal would impact already operating hookah lounges, like Mediterranea, or only future lounges.
“The real focus here is on the public health policy and risks,” Slossberg says. She adds that she’s still doing research and that research will determine the direction her bill takes.
But Rajeh and some hookah smokers say regulation isn’t necessary. Unlike restaurant and bar customers, who were unwillingly exposed to second-hand smoke before Connecticut imposed a smoking ban, hookah smokers knowingly make the choice to do so.
Others say regulations could help guide a growing industry.
In Mediterranea’s front room, customers pick up pizza by the slice, falafel, kebabs and other Middle Eastern treats from the open kitchen.
In back, there’s a dimly lit, brick-walled room draped with cream-colored curtains and lined with pillow-covered benches where customers can smoke their choice of more than a dozen flavors through hand-made hookahs imported from Syria. The room’s exotic mood is enhanced by Arabic music piped in over the speakers. It’s $20 per hookah session, which can last a couple about an hour.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Jen, an 18-year-old student at Yale and Lexi, an 18-year-old student at Southern Connecticut State University, were lounging in a corner, puffing on pink-lemonade-flavored tobacco.
“Usually we get strawberry,” says Jen (who, as Lexi did, asked that we not use her last name), while holding onto the long blue hose extending from the hookah.
Jen smokes cigarettes and Lexi doesn’t. Neither say they’re worried about the health effects of smoking hookah. “We come here to socialize,” Jen says.
On a Friday night, the back room’s benches at the alcohol-less restaurant may be filled with about 30 smokers.
Hookah smoking is typically a social activity, and it’s been practiced for centuries in South Central Asia and the Middle East, where it’s a deeply ingrained part of life.
Omar Rajeh says customers in the back room may pass 20 to 30 minutes talking without even touching the hookah. He says he sees the same thing on his twice-annual trips to Syria, where he’s from.
Historically, smoking tobacco filtered through water was thought to purify the smoke. But the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) says hookah smoking is as dangerous as cigarettes or worse. Since the time it takes to smoke a hookah is much longer than what it takes to smoke a cigarette, the CDC warns that smokers are probably inhaling higher concentrations of toxins. An hour-long hookah session “involves inhaling 100–200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette,” according to the CDC.
Milford’s McBride also worries about sanitation issues, saying there’s no common standard for cleaning hookahs and sharing hookahs can spread disease, like tuberculosis.
“There’s cleaning and then there’s cleaning,” McBride says. “Everybody washes dishes, but when you go to a restaurant, there’s a standard level of cleaning. The restaurant has to clean, rinse and sanitize. They don’t have that in hookah cleaning. There’s no set method for cleaning them. It might not have been thought necessary.”
Furthermore, McBride says, multiple people tend to share a hookah. “You don’t go and smoke half a cigar and then pass it to another guy. You don’t do that with cigarettes. But you do with hookahs.”
Jen sometimes wonders if her friends are “being respectful, like, are they smoking even though they have a cold?”
Still, she knows Mediterranea offers individually sealed mouth tips for hookah smokers at no extra charge.
When Rajeh heard McBride’s concerns about sanitation he sighed. “Spreading disease is only in his mind. I’ve been here 12 years. I have no complaints. Nobody gets sick.”
He uses a special chemical to clean the glass, the pipes and the hose. “It’s 100 percent clean,” he says. “They’re well maintained and I’ve been doing it for years.”
The trend is catching on.
Just last year, at least three hookah bars opened across the state: West Haven’s Fire and Ice, West Hartford’s 1001 Arabian Nights and La Sheesh (literally “the place of hookah” in Arabic) in New Haven.
At La Sheesh, the walls are painted a dark blue and are lined with more than a dozen white IKEA couches where college-age patrons lounge, listening to a mix of R&B and Arabic dance music. Aside from the occasional Arabic song, there’s no other nod to that culture. Instead, the atmosphere is similar to a sleek club, but without the alcohol.
The air smells sweet but there’s no lingering smoke from the three hookahs in use on a recent Friday night.
La Sheesh doesn’t sell tobacco; it sells pre-packaged flavored herbs. “We didn’t want to hurt anybody,” says co-owner Ajim Khan, of the decision to go tobacco-less.
Still, it’s unclear if the herbs are harm-free.
“Some say it’s not that bad for you,” he says. “[But] unless they do the research, nobody really knows.”
Khan says that while growing up he watched his Bangladeshi grandfather smoke hookah. “It used to be mostly the elderly who smoked hookah,” he says, “but now in the cities there are a lot of hookah lounges for young people.”
Fira Samander, who owns West Haven’s Fire and Ice, also grew up around the hookah. His father owned a hookah lounge and restaurant in Jerusalem.
He says it’s not necessarily a bad thing if the state gets involved: “They’ll put certain cautions or warnings in how to run a lounge or what you have to do, and there’d be a code to follow instead of everybody doing their own thing. It could be like getting a liquor license.”
But Samander thinks regulations shouldn’t come about because of health concerns. “The hookah customers know why they’re coming. It’s like, for example, going to the Owl Shop [in New Haven] to smoke cigars. They know exactly where they’re going and why they’re there,” he says.
Plus, he adds, smoking is not the main draw.
“It’s mostly about the socializing. It’s more about just chilling out. If you want to think deeply about the effects of smoking, then you shouldn’t come.”
As hookah lounges grow in popularity and concerns about the smoke spread, other states and countries have looked to regulate or ban hookah smoking. Great Britain’s national smoking ban, enacted in 2007, threatened to close hookah lounges. Last year, New York City considered a ban on new hookah lounges and Michigan’s statewide ban on smoking in public places caused its Middle Eastern restaurants to choose between serving food or hookahs.
Because Mediterranea’s hookah lounge pre-existed Connecticut’s smoking ban, it’s allowed to sell hookah sessions as well as serve food. Newer hookah lounges in the state are allowed to open, but not sell food or drink.
“This idea of grandfathering in health problems — I don’t think the public should have to go through and expose themselves to public health risks because of grandfathering in,” Milford’s McBride says. “The lungs don’t know anything about grandfathering in; cancer doesn’t know anything about it. Your lungs won’t say, ‘Well this won’t affect me because it’s grandfathered in.’”
McBride says although he only has jurisdiction in Milford, he thinks the state should ban, not just regulate, hookah bars.
Last month Rajeh tried to open a second hookah lounge in Tolland, and he was denied, though not for health reasons. The town’s zoning board found there was nothing in the town’s zoning laws applicable to a hookah lounge, so he needed a special permit. He was denied because the board said his business did not fit in with the area’s designated use and didn’t meet the town’s goals “to promote the health, safety and welfare of the community.”
Rajeh blames himself, saying he hadn’t prepared himself properly and hadn’t told customers of his plans, so no one spoke on his behalf.
Half a dozen town residents came out against him, worried that the lounge would morally corrupt their children, produce litter and cause health problems.
“I didn’t anticipate the level of opposition that it generated in Tolland,” says Linda Farmer, the town’s director of planning. “But the more information that came in, the more I understood the concerns … smoking is regulated up to age 18, and a lot of high school kids are 18. And it’s flavored tobacco. It seemed like it was an enticement to young people that may not smoke.”
Robert Miller, director of the Eastern Highlands Health District, which covers Tolland, says he’s pleased Rajeh was denied.
“This is a relatively new trend in tobacco use,” he says. “We’re just now becoming aware of it. It seems to be this kind of tobacco use targets middle class, educated youth, such as those around a university setting. Certainly given that UConn is in my jurisdiction, we are concerned with this growing [trend].”
Rajeh says several of his customers are University of Connecticut students who drive more than an hour to visit his small restaurant and lounge.
“They say there’s nothing to do there except go to clubs and get into trouble or fights,” Rajeh says. “They say it’s worth it to drive here. Students are gonna do something on the weekends, ya know?”
West Haven’s Samander agrees. “A hookah lounge is not as harmful as any bar or cigar bar,” he says.
And, he adds, if the concerns are about young people, “a hookah might keep them away from alcohol” since many hookah lounges don’t serve alcohol.
Rebecca and Rob Makas of West Hartford go to 1001 Arabian Nights hookah lounge about twice a month.
“Generally speaking [the experience] is really relaxing,” Rebecca says. “I guess it’s similar to a bar in that it’s quiet and dark and there’s music. This sounds hokey, but it’s a very positive atmosphere. Everybody there is there to enjoy themselves. And because there’s no alcohol, there isn’t a skeevy sort of bar feeling.”
She says she is always given her own bagged and disposable mouth tip to use during smoking sessions and she has no sanitary concerns about smoking.
She used to smoke cigarettes “a long time ago” and says she seriously thought about the health risks. “But like any smoker I’m aware of it, I considered it and I still choose to go.”
Her husband Rob had never smoked before, and says he’s against smoking in public places. Even so, they don’t think hookah lounges should be regulated.
“It’s the same as going to a private club or cigar bar,” Rebecca says. “Everyone going there is going there to smoke. It’s not like going to a restaurant and you’re forced to deal with someone’s second-hand smoke.”
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who smoke [hookahs] and say it’s not bad for you or not as bad as cigarettes,” he says. “I’m not sure, but I’m an adult and I know it’s not good for you.
“It’s just like when I go to McDonald’s. I know I shouldn’t but I order the No. 1 anyway.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun