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Closer Look: San Francisco Hookah Lounges Snuffed Out

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – San Francisco’s Department of Health has snuffed out the city’s burgeoning hookah scene. Last month, nearly two dozen hookah lounges were told to close their doors. The city says all of the establishments were found to be in violation of local and state laws regarding indoor smoking.

The department has said the laws are pretty clear. A business can only allow indoor smoking if no food or beverages are consumed in the same space. That means hookah lounges can’t sell food or drinks with the hookah. The same law applies to food being brought into the lounge from outside sources. Also, the bar or lounge must be entirely owner-operated. The business can’t have any part-time employees, including something like an outside janitorial service. Finally, the lounge or business must be located in a commercial building.

“A lot of the hookah lounges are located in mixed-use buildings and that means a building that contains permanent residents or is an apartment building or is a condo,” said Janine Young, the city’s Senior Environmental Health Inspector

“So, these residents are being exposed to secondhand smoke,” said Young.  “I get calls from people who are concerned about smoke and exposure to secondhand smoke, calls from people with children, calls from pregnant ladies, calls from people with respiratory problems and even people with cancer.”

But some involved in this practice have said this is a tradition that has its roots in Middle Eastern culture, and that smoking hookah is becoming more popular than ever in countries like Egypt and Syria and now the United States.

“As far as I remember, when I was young, 30 years ago, elderly people in the community would smoke hookah for like a half an hour in the evening, then I noticed in the last ten years or fifteen years, it became very common.” said Sally Aldaher, Executive Director, Arab Cultural and Community Center. “I saw young people are smoking hookah more.”

Younger people have been flocking to the lounges to smoke the tobacco flavored with  fruit and molasses. Sally Aldaher pointed out that there has been some discussion amongst board members about whether or not to include hookah smoking at the Arab Cultural Center’s annual festival. So far, the festival has not included any type of hookah smoking.

Lounge owners like Kamel Asfour have said this move by the city will force them to lay off employees and lose money they have invested in inventory and infrastructure.

“Smoking hookah is ethnic and it is a tradition for Middle Easterners.” said Kamel Asfour, owner of The Dream Hookah Lounge. “We are just going to take all of our merchandise that is in there and just sell it. And we are just going to give it up, just like that.”

Department of Health officials have said that so far, the city’s cigar bars will not close because they are all located in commercial buildings, and are therefore exempt from local and state law.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

  • Motor Runner

    O SF, trying to push them middle easterners out of your city…

    If I was any sort of smart, I would buy some of the Hookah equipment, and take it to my Cigar lounge, diversify some of my business.

  • George Angermeir

    I hope all these weird antismokers all die with lung cancer. There has never been any proof that second hand smoke causes any problems. These weirdos have an agenda and there is enough idiots in our government agences so blindly support them.

    • Choice

      People with asthma won’t agree. An asthma attack is very scary and sometimes some die during an attack.

    • SmokeBad

      “There has never been any proof that second hand smoke causes any problems.”

      Are you joking or just EXTREMELY dumb? I smoke cigarettes, but come on man, what you said is just flat out, blatently, untrue. There are literally thousands of studies about the numerous negative effects of secondhand smoke. While I am not saying that studies are always necessarily 100% definitively correct, I thnk the sheer number of studies citing the health risks associated with secondhand smoke qualifies as “proof” that secondhand smoke is bad.

      Want “proof” that I’m right? Just google “secondhand smoke causes cancer” or “study finds secondhand smoke is harmful” or, well you get the idea.

      • LucidThinker

        The sheer number of studies you cite to merely show “likages” as opposed to “causation”. Just because smoking can be linked to all sorts of problems does not mean smoking caused or causes the problem Asthma, lung cancer and a host of pulmonary related ailments can also be linked to air pullution, auto/bus exhaust, genetics and other factors. Whereas cardiovascular problems can also be caused by diets, mobility (or lack thereof), genetics and economic level (studies have shown that poor people have limited access to cardiovascular medication, high blood pressure medication and medication that lowers cholesterol).

        Smoking is a factor that contribute to a whole host of negative effects, certainly, but it is not the sole cause. Please read the studies carefully and be aware of the language used to substantitate their claims. Sometimes, some studies already focus on at-risk groups (the elderly, the infirm and the economically depresssed) that their conclusions are already foregone before the study has even started. Choosing a particular population (from which to draw a random sample giving the study credibility) is one way to skew the data.

        As Mark Twain once quoted paraphrasing Disraeli, “There are three kinds of lies. Lies. Damned lies. And statistics.” And because the numbers can be easily manipulated, statistics can be used to support a lot of spurious claims. My favorite: A woman who smokes became pregnant. One day while climbing up to her second story apartment, she tripped and fell. As a result of her accident, she miscarried. Headline: Pregnant Woman Smokes Kill Baby. There is a link (afterall the mother did smoked and the baby did die). But did smoking cause the baby’s death? I don’t think so.

        I’m sure you get the idea.

  • E N

    I agreed with Motor Runner! Make it a Cigar Hookah Bar! Or find a place with outdoor sitting for hookah and inside will have food and drink!
    Problem solved , I think. hahaha
    I’m not a smokr nor against smokers but I feel people on top of the City chain has nothing better else to do. How about balancing the budget! Wait, with all the Hookah Bars closing, I guess no money coming in.
    I just don’t get the logic here since The Health Department are they ones that approved them in the first place! The Hookah Bars did not just magically appeared over night! I think the bar owners should take them to court and file for their losses!


  • Jonboysf

    Once again San Francisco is over-regulating small business and killing economic growth in the City. This is the Barbary Coast and people love their vices. Folkswill always want to smoke while they drink. There has to be a happy medium. Perhaps the next mayor could hire a small business “czar” to act as ambassador to the small business community, help them navigate city and state regulations and create win-win situations to stimulate growth and tax revenue.

  • William

    can’t smoke a Hookah but buying weed is fine

  • CC

    I have heard that Hooka smoking causes more lung problems than regular smoking because of the time involved and the way it is done. I hope they do some studies on this before we have a large number of sick people in the hospitals..

  • James

    Legalize weed in San Francisco, and penalize small business hookah bars. Epic. I would like to see the director of public health to prove she has received complaints as stated in the interview. (She is BS’ing big time).

    These dumb people regulate businesses? The only reason SF politicians are fu***** with the small businesses is because tourism brings in so much revenue, they can do whatever they please.

    Leland Yee is probably pushing this through… Hack.

  • sal

    They should also close all the pot shops also because everyone knows people are getting fake prescriptions and beating the system. Also majority of the pot shops make so much money strictly cash and only show a fraction of it to IRS.

  • In the Gutter

    That’s certainly the San Francisco I’ve come to know and regret, one where the sanctimonious few wield Byzantine bureaucracy to impose their virtuous visions of best behavior over all. It’s a real shame, this town used to be an awful lot of fun. Happily, that fun’s not gone, just relocated:

    Go figure – Detroit trumping SF for diverse urban amenity. Who ever would’ve thunk it.

    P.S. I presume you couldn’t have hookah at a sidewalk cafe in SF, either, unless you do it at the very edge of the curb.

  • MyTruth

    My mother died two years ago from lung cancer. I’ve had the misfortune to see her suffer gasping for air. It’s a slow painful death. Until the decision was made to keep her sedated until she died. It is no joke. She was a smoker ever since I have been a little girl.

    The expense of having to treat people with serious ailmenets costs much more than the prevention.

    I don’t believe in telling other people what to do, but I appreciate not having to inhale other people’s misguided belief that they can do whatever they want and it doesn’t affect others.

    • In the Gutter

      I am in complete agreement. Yet, for some reason, others persist in compelling me, under protection of the law no less, to inhale their incontestably deadly exhaust fumes even though I myself refuse to own or operate a car. There may be a lesson here along the lines of having to sometimes tolerate things we do not appreciate if we are to live in a dense urban society, but I suspect it is one that will be thoroughly rejected by that aforesaid sanctimonious few.

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