Smokers looking to light up socially haven't been able to in Maryland's bars and restaurants since 2007, when the General Assembly banned smoking in most public places.
Enter the state's growing number of hookah lounges, where patrons smoke flavored tobacco through water pipes and often can bring their own alcohol to consume. Faced with little regulation, their number has increased fivefold to nearly 30 since 2007, when they were exempted from the state law because the sale of tobacco was deemed their "primary activity."
Throughout Maryland, no specific laws regulate hookah lounges, which often fall outside zoning rules. There's little or no regulation in terms of health department oversight, alcohol consumption or hours of operation.
"It's really like the Wild, Wild West," said Tom Quirk, chairman of the Baltimore County Council and representative of the Catonsville and Arbutus area. "There's really not a lot of oversight and enforcement."
Hoping to rein in the proliferation of hookah lounges, the Baltimore County Council voted unanimously Monday to approve a measure directing the county Planning Board to develop recommendations to regulate hookah lounges "in a manner consistent with the public health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Baltimore County."
Sam Taha, manager at Towson Nights Hookah Lounge Cafe in Towson, was not aware of the council's action but said that stricter oversight for hookah lounges would not necessarily hurt business.
"It wouldn't affect the business because it's a hookah lounge and, regardless, people will come there to smoke hookah," Taha said. "Regardless, people will come out."
Hookah lounges offer different flavored tobacco products known as shisha, which are smoked on the premises from a hookah, or communal water pipe. Lounges, many with couches and ottomans, offer a relaxed atmosphere for a clientele that's largely, though not exclusively, young adults and college students.
Kathleen Hoke, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation & Advocacy at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said the number of hookah lounges in Maryland is increasing, especially around college campuses. The number ballooned to about 29 last year from six in 2007, said Hoke, citing the center's studies.
Both County Councilman Todd Huff, a Republican who represents Lutherville and the northern part of the county, and Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, say they've received complaints about noise and behavior in the early-morning hours from residents and business owners near Towson Nights, on Allegheny Avenue.
Towson resident Phil Grillo, who owns Grillo Jewelers across the street from Towson Nights, characterized patrons there as "very rowdy, loud — obnoxious.
"Here in Towson on Main Street, USA, you don't need a hookah lounge," he said.
Taha denied that there were major problems, and said his establishment doesn't receive many complaints about the business.
Taha acknowledged the lounge allows patrons 21 and older to bring their own alcohol, but said it employs four security guards, at least one of whom is posted outside to check IDs and monitor activity on the sidewalks. The lounge is open to patrons 18 and older.
Taha said anyone caught drinking who isn't 21 "could be prosecuted," and no alcohol is allowed after 2 a.m., although the lounge is open until 4 a.m. on weekends.
"They mostly drink tea" after 2 a.m., Taha said. "No one is allowed to bring in alcohol after 1:45 a.m. We put the lights on, cut the music and collect all the alcohol."
John Michael Bohnes, general manager of Ice Hookah Lounge on York Road in Towson, said his business operates "very, very similar to a bar."
The lounge, a black-lit storefront with glowing white designs in the window, asks customers for ID at the door, and no alcohol is allowed at a table if even one of the customers there is not of legal drinking age, he said. The business also stops seating new customers and orders drinks off the tables at 2 a.m. from Wednesday to Saturday, when the lounge is open until 4 a.m.
"We don't want to seem like we have a pass with certain things," Bohnes said. "We know a lot of people leave the bars and want to come here and drink more."
Bohnes also was not aware of the council's action. Quirk and Councilman Ken Oliver, a Democrat who represents the Randallstown area, also have hookah lounges in their districts and co-sponsored the resolution.