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.