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Charlotte steps up scrutiny, regulation of hookah bars

Charlotte steps up scrutiny, regulation of hookah bars

ByJacob Steimer

It started as a routinecall: An employee at a tattoo parlor on University City Boulevard smelled gas. But what Charlotte Fire Departmentinvestigators found caught them off guard.

Carbon monoxide levels werefour times the level required to evacuate the building, and the gas was comingfrom the King Tut Hookah Lounge next door. It was 11 a.m., hours since anyone had smoked.

Charlotte deputy fire marshal Jonathan Leonard said hewas surprised and concerned. The levels were high enough to cause headaches,fatigue and nausea. Ten hours earlier, when the lounge was open, the levelsmight have been high enough to cause unconsciousness or death, Leonard feared.

That was last summer. Sincethen, local officials have increased scrutiny of hookah, a centuries-old methodof smoking that has become popular in Charlotte in the last eight years. Charlotte firefighters have started carrying portablecarbon monoxide detectors and enforcing tougher ventilation standards at hookahlounges.

This change in code,though, is costing hookah bars tens of thousands of dollars.

"I see (hookah lounges) asgiving people somewhere to hang out,” said Rodney Redmon, CEO of Red@28th, ahookah lounge in NoDa. "They see it as the devil or something.”

Leonard said he and hisstaff have tried to be respectful of other businesses and that the ventilationrequirements are a legitimate point of public safety.

Hookah’sdraws and flaws

It’s getting close to 11 p.m. by the time the Stache House hookah bar inSouth End starts to fill. The arriving customers aren’t loud or drunk. They’vejust come here to lean back with Bacardi in one hand and a hookah pipe in theother. Soon their voices will be low as they sit, talk and smoke. This,devotees say, is hookah’s strongest suit: relaxation.

And while the city’s hookahbars range in atmosphere from nightclub to coffee house, you’re more likely toencounter leisurely conversation than high-paced activity.

Hookah is a water-pipesystem used to smoke specially made flavored tobacco. A typical modern hookahhas a head (with holes in the bottom), a metal body, a water bowl, and aflexible hose with a mouthpiece.

In 2007, there was only onehookah bar in Charlotte, according to Brennan Appel, president of Charlotte-based hookahdistributor South Smoke. Today, at least eight are operating.

What does this mean for public health?

A typical hour-long hookahsession pollutes the body with 36 times the tar of a cigarette, 8.4 times thecarbon monoxide, and 1.7 times the nicotine, according to a study published inthe American Journal of Health Behavior.

In the United States, hookah is most popular among high school andcollege kids. In a WakeForestUniversity survey of students at eight North Carolina universities, 40 percent said they had smokedtobacco from hookah pipes.

To me, it’s taking a lot ofkids off the street and getting them to do something besides smoking weed andgetting drunk.

Jaz Vincent, president of Red@28th

Much of the appeal toyouth, public health experts say, is the variety of flavorings available, whichrange from blackberry to bubble gum. The substances, called shisha, don’talways contain tobacco.

"Often the use of hookahpipes can be the entry for people to start using tobacco products,” MecklenburgCounty Health Director Marcus Plescia said. "It glorifies tobacco use … in theeyes of youth.”

But some say its appeal toyouth is actually an asset.

"To me, it’s taking a lotof kids off the street and getting them to do something besides smoking weedand getting drunk,” Jaz Vincent, president of Red@28th, said.

Our concern about hookahbars … relates back to the fact that we don’t always know what is being smokedin those pipes.

MecklenburgCounty HealthDirector Marcus Plescia

Derrick Howland, a patronof Red@28th, said hookah is about spending time with good friends.

"Yeah, we love hookah, butit’s a calm place to relax with ... the people that you keep around you,”Howland said.

The hookah bar, rightbehind Amelie’s bakery, contains a wall of books and bills itself as "Charlotte’s 1st Multicultural Library Lounge.” Patronscan order a Jager Bomb or a Vanilla Hookah to go with their Cormac McCarthy.

Updatesto fire code

In the two weeks after lastsummer’s incident at King Tut, the fire department inspected every hookah barit could find, and it detected "totally unacceptable” carbon monoxide levels atseveral of them.

The findings ultimatelyprompted state fire officials to update North Carolina’s fire code to specifically address hookahbars. Starting Jan. 1, the bars and lounges will have to transport and disposeof the coals they use in a regulated way.

They’ll also have toinstall ventilation systems 12 times more powerful than those required in atypical office building. And that’s the expensive part for business owners.

Hookah got its start in Persia and India centuries ago, according to the CDC.

Hookah bar owners who spokewith the Observer said the new ventilation systems are costing them anywherefrom $15,000 to $30,000.

Redmon said he’d ratherhave spent the money on building his business, even though the new systembrought his bar’s CO levels down by 80 percent.

"They’re treating it like asmoke issue, but it’s not a smoke issue,” Redmon said.

"I’m actually allergic tosmoke,” Vincent said. "And I can be in there with 100 people smoking hookah andnothing happens.”

High carbon monoxide levelsare hard to detect because the gas is odorless. That’s why the Charlotte FireDepartment decided to purchase 20 portable carbon monoxide detectors this pastwinter.

Leonard, the deputy firemarshal, said the detectors are well worth their $2,400 total price tag, asinvestigators have found dangerous levels of carbon monoxide 5 or 6 times sincetheir purchase. When that occurs, the firemen evacuate the buildings until COlevels are under control. After that, though, they leave, and theestablishments go back into operation.

The Charlotte FireDepartment inspects 34,000 properties every year, according to Deputy FireMarshal Jonathan Leonard.

At that point, Leonardsays, notices of violations are sent to Jeff Griffin with Mecklenburg CountyBuilding Standards.

Leonard said the hookahbars have been compliant for the most part.

"If we were responding tothe same location every Saturday, we’re going to put a stop to them,” Leonardsaid. "That hasn’t been the case.”

Whatsmoking regulations say

When North Carolina outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants in2010, no exceptions were made for hookah bars.

The N.C. Department ofHealth and Human Services website says smoking hookah is allowed only if thehookah bar does not sell food or alcohol.

However, the state’s definitionof "smoking” includes only activities involving tobacco, which is not alwaysthe case with hookah.

Mecklenburg County HealthDepartment spokeswoman Rebecca Carter said the department only inspects hookahbars "if they have an ABC permit or a restaurant permit and if they usetobacco.”

Sugarcane is often used asthe base when tobacco isn’t. The only difference the substitution makes onhealth effects is the absence of nicotine, a study by AmericanUniversity of Beirut found.

Owners of four Charlotte hookah bars the Observer interviewed said theyserve only tobacco-free shisha to their indoor customers. Another local barthat doesn’t have outside seating advertises tobacco-based shisha on itswebsite.

In 2014, the New YorkUniversity School of Medicine visited eight hookah bars in New York City, which all claimed to use only tobacco-freehookah. Nicotine was found in the air at all eight locations.

"Our concern about hookahbars … relates back to the fact that we don’t always know what is being smokedin those pipes,” Plescia, the MecklenburgCounty health director, said. "We rely for the mostpart on public complaints or public reports … voluntary enforcement and socialenforcement.”

If a health departmentinvestigator, visiting a hookah bar due to a complaint, finds evidence oftobacco-based shisha being smoked indoors, he treats it as if he has foundevidence of a cigarette being smoked indoors. He will file a report, and aviolations letter will go out to the owner. A second violation means a secondletter. It takes a third violation to trigger disciplinary action, which hasn’thappened since shortly after the law took effect, Bill Hardister, thedepartment’s environmental health director, said.

"Now, if we do have aviolation, they resolve the problem.” Hardister said. "The majority of (hookahbar owners) have been what appears to be very forthcoming with us” on whethertobacco is in use.

"You do have to take theirword for it.”