Closer Look: San Francisco Hookah Lounges Snuffed Out

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Hookah water pipes on display at a lounge. (CBS)

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.)

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