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As interest in hookah lounges ignites, Baltimore County eyes regulations

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.

Monday's resolution states that currently no state or county law is clear regarding rules for an establishment that "offers entertainment, sells food and tobacco, permits smoking on the premises, and permits patrons to bring alcohol on the premises."

"I'm a very pro-business elected official, but something has got to change with this hookah lounge stuff because it's clearly not being controlled as much as I'd like to see," said Quirk, a Democrat, in an interview.

Quirk said the issue has been "bubbling to the surface for quite a while." In May 2012, the council considered a bill to create a BYOB license for establishments without liquor licenses. The bill called for more oversight and enforcement of liquor laws, specifically at hookah lounges.

Huff, who sponsored that bill with Marks and Oliver, ultimately pulled it because of potential consequences for restaurants and bars. More recently, the council asked Arnold Jablon, the county director of permits, approvals and inspections, to review what county codes could be applicable, and asked council attorneys to look at oversight in other jurisdictions, Quirk said.

Hookah lounges were part of the discussion during the General Assembly's consideration of the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007, which banned smoking in bars and restaurants across the state. At the time Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who represents part of Baltimore County, asked for an attorney general's opinion on how hookah lounges would be affected.

Then-Assistant Attorney General Sandra Benson Brantley determined the lounges fall under a category exempting businesses where the sale of tobacco products is the "primary activity." However, she noted that restaurants and bars that also feature hookah smoking might not be able to prove tobacco products are their primary revenue generator.

Baltimore City passed its own indoor clean air act in 2007, which allows smoking inside a "smoking bar" that is licensed to serve alcohol and derives at least 50-percent of its revenue from non-cigarette tobacco products. The city has a handful of hookah lounges in downtown, Highlandtown and Federal Hill.

The city, however, has no laws specifically for hookah lounges, Hoke said.

"We've treated them as an accessory use to tobacco shops, which are permitted in most business districts and would normally sell the hookah products," said Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman with Baltimore City Housing.

Porter said anyone who wanted to open a hookah lounge would be referred to the planning department's Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals Cases for a public hearing. Applications also are referred to health and fire departments to make sure they're in compliance there too.

One problem in regulating the lounges, Hoke said, has been that each lounge offers different products, none of which are easily defined in the way a cigarette would be.

Some hookah supporters say smoking shisha is safer than other forms of tobacco, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated this year that during a typical one-hour-long hookah session a person inhales 90,000 milliliters of smoke, compared to around 5,000 from a cigarette.

Jurisdictions across the country with hookah regulations have used the public health aspect as a means to regulate the businesses, Hoke said. Local governments have used their health departments. to regulate the sharing of hookah pipes, safe handling of the shisha and the cleaning of the pipe itself, she said.

As the hookah lounge business trend grows, she said, regulations could spread across the state.

"Several counties have thought about doing this, and they've sought our counsel," Hoke said. "Baltimore County is the first one out of the box to say they're doing something. They would be the first one to have regulations specifically for hookah establishments."

jmeoli@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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