The hookah lounge, a staple of Middle Eastern culture, has now gained a foothold in American culture, drawing the attention of legislators and health advocates across the country worried about the impact of these purveyors of a new type of tobacco smoking.
Typically, the patrons are young adults and college students. What attracts them to these smoking bars is not just to puff on sweetened tobacco from an ornate water pipe, but to relax with friends and, frequently, to drink alcohol they bring in themselves.
Baltimore County Council members are alarmed that these businesses associated with smoking and drinking often staying open well past the bar-closing time of 2 a.m., go virtually unregulated. Council members report hearing complaints about noise and rowdy behavior in the early morning hours near at least one hookah bar in Towson.
"It's really like the wild, wild west," said Tom Quirk, council chairman, referring to the lack of regulations.
Hookah lounge operators say they run a tight ship — carding customers to make sure they are old enough to smoke and drink.
On Monday, the council adopted a measure directing the county Planning Board to come up with recommendations on how to regulate hookah establishments.
We think that's a wise first step. It remains to be seen whether hookah bars are a passing fad or an enduring cultural phenomenon, but it should be noted that the smoke-filled venues have increased in number from six in 2007 to 29 last year in Maryland.
A previous regulation effort hit a snag. In 2012, County Council considered a bill to create a BYOB license for establishments, such as hookah bars, without a liquor license, but the sponsors pulled it after concerns were raised about the wider impact on restaurants and bars.
Meanwhile, there is no reason for hysteria. Hookah bars are not opium dens, and the young people who frequent them are not, de facto, candidates for dissipation.
However, hookah lounges operate at the nexus of three conditions — legal indoor smoking, BYOB alcohol and late hours — that, taken together, necessitate regulatory oversight. We urge the Planning Board and, subsequently, the County Council, to find a balanced approach to regulating establishments that are currently not breaking any laws.
Hookah bars, if they are to remain open, will have to conform to rules that ensure health, public safety and peace in the neighborhood.