Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed legislation Tuesday that would mandate county hookah lounges close at 8 p.m. on weeknights and 9 p.m. on weekends, hours before their current early-morning closing times.
"This is another common-sense effort to protect the quality of life in our communities," Kamenetz said in a statement.
"The legislation strikes a balance in that it allows these businesses to continue to operate in the same manner that local retail cigar and tobacco stores operate, but it prevents them from operating as late-night entertainment venues disrupting our neighborhoods."
In the past several years, hookah lounges, where patrons smoke flavored tobacco through a hookah, or communal water pipe, have sprung up across Baltimore County. A provision in the state's Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007 allows smoking at establishments such as hookah lounges where tobacco is the primary business.
But in many jurisdictions, including Baltimore County, the lounges operate without health department or liquor board oversight, although most of the lounges are BYOB businesses, allowing patrons to bring in alcohol.
The legislation, which will be introduced next week, also includes vapor lounges where customers can purchase and smoke electronic cigarettes.
According to the Center for Tobacco Regulation at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, Maryland is home to 43 hookah lounges and 31 vapor lounges. In Baltimore County, there are nine hookah lounges and seven vapor lounges, according to the center's data.
Kathleen Hoke, director of the Center for Tobacco Regulation, said Baltimore County's approach to regulating both venues is unique.
"I will say that I have heard of no one doing it this way," Hoke said. "I think it's a creative and effective way of dealing with this two-headed monster" of public nuisance and health concerns.
Tuesday's announcement laid out both the nuisance and health issues associated with the lounges. Police have made arrests for felony drug possession, liquor law violations, assaults and disorderly conduct inside or outside hookah lounges, the statement said. One lounge, Kamenetz said in an interview, had hosted a striptease.
Johnson said police have monitored the lounges closely for about six months, and conducted operations in and around several. He said officers have answered 39 calls for service at a total of five hookah lounges, and made 37 arrests.
Though Johnson said several locations have had no calls for service, every one police target and monitor ultimately are found to have violations.
The county's health department said in the release that hookah smoking poses a "serious health hazard" with much more smoke being inhaled from a hookah session than in a cigarette. The department also warned against the unregulated e-cigarettes, of which manufacturers do not have to disclose ingredients.
"Limiting the hours of operation of these businesses is not only good for public safety, it is good for public health," Baltimore County Director of Health and Human Services Dr. Gregory Branch said in the statement.
Hoke said other jurisdictions have effectively legislated hookah lounges out of existence by amending indoor smoking bans to include the lounges. Others have reduced health risks by banning the sharing of pipes.
Kamenetz said in an interview that an imposed closing time is "the quickest way to implement reforms of problems that we think exist, while also recognizing their legal right to operate a business."
The county executive said he did not meet with any hookah lounge or vapor lounge owners before deciding upon a course of action.
"I reached out to our police chief and to our public health officer— that was all the information I needed to know," Kamenetz said. "The bottom line is, that these facilities are operating as after-hour party clubs and that's not the kind of business we want to promote in Baltimore County."
Kamenetz said the closing times included in the proposed legislation mirror those of traditional tobacco and cigar shops in the county.
"If they want to operate under the same loophole that exists for these cigar shops, they should have a parallel closing time," Kamenetz said, referring to the Clean Indoor Air Act provision allowing smoking at such businesses. "It's clear to me that although they have this loophole under state law that allows them to operate, they're exceeding that intent by operating after-hour party clubs and striptease joints."
The bill has support from several affected business groups, including the Greater Towson Committee, the Towson Chamber of Commerce, and the Arbutus Business and Professional Association.
Hoke said the legislation as proposed would stand up to legal challenge from lounge owners due to local government's authority to stop nuisances.
"I think they have their ducks in a row on this one," Hoke said. "I think they definitely spent their time doing their homework on how to do this the right way. It definitely would survive legal challenge, and my guess is, the way they've set it up, it would definitely survive political challenge as well."
Owners of several hookah lounges in southwest Baltimore County took stock of the changes Tuesday afternoon.
Shawn Ahmad, owner of Paradise Hookah Lounge located in the Paradise community of Catonsville, said he thinks the new hours are a good idea.
"From our perspective it's a good thing. I think if the lounge falls within a certain distance of a residential area, it should close earlier to prevent a disturbance," Ahmad said.
Ahmad said changing the hours will hurt lounges who do the bulk of their business late at night.
Sam Haroon, owner of Cloudz Hookah Lounge in Arbutus, said he's worried the new regulations will force his 5-month-old business to shut down.
Haroon said he thinks closing at 2 a.m. is more reasonable because other lounges across the state are allowed to stay open until 5 a.m. His Arbutus hookah lounge located on East Drive stays open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and closes at 3 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
"I don't think our customers will be happy if we have to close [at 9 p.m.]," Haroon said.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Lauren Lorrichio contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun