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Hold the hookah

Washington smoking ban could put hookah lounges out of business
By RACHEL LA CORTE
Associated Press writer
 
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Cary Wilson studies for his astronomy class while taking a drag from the hose extending from his hookah water pipe, slowly inhaling the fragrant shisha -- a mixture of tobacco, molasses and fruit flavors.

Joined by his friends on a plush maroon couch at Fire & Earth, a hookah lounge and tobacco merchant in downtown Olympia, Wilson recently said the newly passed statewide ban on indoor public smoking -- including hookah bars -- is unfair.

"You have a place to go that's not centered around drinking," said Wilson, an 18-year-old year student at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. "It's just a nice place to come and hang out."

Wilson and his friends will now have to smoke their hookahs at home. The citizen-passed initiative took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Fire & Earth will be closing its hookah bar, and several hookah lounges around the state are wondering how they'll be able to stay in business under the ban, the strictest in the country.

"They really didn't make any considerations for the extent to which businesses would be affected by it," said Sarah Schwarz, owner of Fire & Earth. "They could have easily written in there a small exemption and people still would have voted for it."

Initiative 901 was overwhelmingly passed by 63 percent of the voters on Nov. 8. The law prohibits smoking in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, minicasinos, most hotel rooms and most other nontribal businesses currently exempted by the state's Clean Indoor Air Act, which already bans smoking in most public places. It also requires a 25-foot smoke-free buffer around doorways, windows that open and ventilation intakes, making it tougher than eight other states that also have statewide bans.

Specialty businesses like cigar bars and hookah lounges are not exempt.

First-time violators will face warnings. After that, each violation will be punishable by a maximum $100 fine. Offending businesses would face suspension of licenses to operate and serve liquor.

Several regular bars around the state hosted "second-hand smoke" parties Wednesday night; Schwarz announced plans to stay open late.

A yellow flier on her front door announced the end of the mellow lounge, where regulars sit on plush couches or a raised platform with colorful pillows to smoke the fragrant tobacco.

She still will sell the elaborate hookahs -- ranging from $75 to $200 -- and tobacco and accessories, but said she expects to lose one-third of her business and will have to lay off two of her five employees. She and several of her employees and customers are planning a hookah protest at the Capitol on Monday.

The hookah has been popular for centuries in North Africa, the Middle East and Central and South Asia, and has recently become popular in the United States, with at least 1,000 lounges around the country, said Brennan Appel, director of SouthSmoke.com, a nationwide hookah distributor. Some are near college campuses, where many students aren't old enough to go to bars but can smoke. Several have opened in the Seattle area in recent months.

"I would consider it the new concept of Starbucks," Appel said.

A hookah is a bowl connected to a vase of water with a long tube and mouthpiece. The molasses tobacco -- called shisha -- sits inside the bowl with a layer of foil and a hot coal on top. The tobacco is never lit, instead heated by the charcoal, which smokers say produces a vapor different from smoke.

"It's not the same type of tobacco use," Schwarz said, noting that she already didn't allow cigarettes, pipes or cigars to be smoked in the lounge. "It's not second-hand smoke in the ways that cigarettes or cigars are. It's a completely different experience."

But according to a World Health Organization Report released earlier this year, even though the smoke is filtered through water, "the smoke produced by a waterpipe contains high levels of toxic compounds, including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals.

"Second-hand smoke from waterpipes is a mixture of tobacco smoke in addition to smoke from the fuel and therefore poses a serious risk for nonsmokers," the report read.

Reshad Kazimee, owner of Munchy'z, a hookah lounge in Pullman, has a lawyer looking at the new law, and said he's prepared to take the issue to court.

"I don't think it's right to tell business owners whether or not they can allow activities that are legal everywhere else," he said. "It's not fair to make people close down."

Kazimee's family is from Afghanistan, and he said he opened the lounge four years ago as a way to combine his culture and the recent surge in popularity in the lounges across the county.

"I feel they're taking my culture away from me," he said.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he was exploring a possible fix to the initiative -- something that would take two-thirds of the Legislature to approve.

"I think that there are several areas that should be considered, and the hookah bars are one of them," he said. "They're a different culture. They're totally dependent on that for their business."

Schoesler, who also supports an exemption for cigar bars, said he was going to talk to his colleagues about the various concerns about the initiative, including the 25-foot rule.

"I think that many members on both sides of the aisle have concerns," said Schoesler. He attended a "Last Chance" smoke-out and fundraiser for two colleagues Tuesday night at The Spar Cafe and Tobacco Merchant, a historic bar in downtown Olympia where personal lockers in the humidor cater to cigar aficionados. The owner of the Spar, Alan McWain, said he's decided to put his business up for sale, in part because of the ban.

"I'm going to explain to them what the problems are -- do you want to put these guys out of business?" Schoesler asked.

Some Democrats agree, but say that while the initiative may be overreaching, lawmakers are unlikely to try to change it.

"Would the Legislature go against the will of the people so soon after they passed this?" asked House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. "It sounds like a long shot."