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Charlotte steps up scrutiny, regulation of hookah bars

By Jacob Steimer

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

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

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

That was last summer. Since then, local officials have increased scrutiny of hookah, a centuries-old method of smoking that has become popular in Charlotte in the last eight years. Charlotte firefighters have started carrying portable carbon monoxide detectors and enforcing tougher ventilation standards at hookah lounges.

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

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

Leonard said he and his staff have tried to be respectful of other businesses and that the ventilation requirements are a legitimate point of public safety.

Hookah’s draws and flaws

It’s getting close to 11 p.m. by the time the Stache House hookah bar in South End starts to fill. The arriving customers aren’t loud or drunk. They’ve just come here to lean back with Bacardi in one hand and a hookah pipe in the other. 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 hookah bars range in atmosphere from nightclub to coffee house, you’re more likely to encounter leisurely conversation than high-paced activity.

Hookah is a water-pipe system used to smoke specially made flavored tobacco. A typical modern hookah has a head (with holes in the bottom), a metal body, a water bowl, and a flexible hose with a mouthpiece.

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

What does this mean for public health?

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

In the United States, hookah is most popular among high school and college kids. In a Wake Forest University survey of students at eight North Carolina universities, 40 percent said they had smoked tobacco from hookah pipes.

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

Jaz Vincent, president of Red@28th

Much of the appeal to youth, public health experts say, is the variety of flavorings available, which range from blackberry to bubble gum. The substances, called shisha, don’t always contain tobacco.

“Often the use of hookah pipes can be the entry for people to start using tobacco products,” Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia said. “It glorifies tobacco use … in the eyes of youth.”

But some say its appeal to youth is actually an asset.

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

Our concern about hookah bars … relates back to the fact that we don’t always know what is being smoked in those pipes.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia

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

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

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

Updates to fire code

In the two weeks after last summer’s incident at King Tut, the fire department inspected every hookah bar it could find, and it detected “totally unacceptable” carbon monoxide levels at several of them.

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

They’ll also have to install ventilation systems 12 times more powerful than those required in a typical 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 spoke with the Observer said the new ventilation systems are costing them anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000.

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

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

“I’m actually allergic to smoke,” Vincent said. “And I can be in there with 100 people smoking hookah and nothing happens.”

High carbon monoxide levels are hard to detect because the gas is odorless. That’s why the Charlotte Fire Department decided to purchase 20 portable carbon monoxide detectors this past winter.

Leonard, the deputy fire marshal, said the detectors are well worth their $2,400 total price tag, as investigators have found dangerous levels of carbon monoxide 5 or 6 times since their purchase. When that occurs, the firemen evacuate the buildings until CO levels are under control. After that, though, they leave, and the establishments go back into operation.

The Charlotte Fire Department inspects 34,000 properties every year, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Jonathan Leonard.

At that point, Leonard says, notices of violations are sent to Jeff Griffin with Mecklenburg County Building Standards.

Leonard said the hookah bars have been compliant for the most part.

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

What smoking regulations say

When North Carolina outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants in 2010, no exceptions were made for hookah bars.

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

However, the state’s definition of “smoking” includes only activities involving tobacco, which is not always the case with hookah.

Mecklenburg County Health Department spokeswoman Rebecca Carter said the department only inspects hookah bars “if they have an ABC permit or a restaurant permit and if they use tobacco.”

Sugarcane is often used as the base when tobacco isn’t. The only difference the substitution makes on health effects is the absence of nicotine, a study by American University of Beirut found.

Owners of four Charlotte hookah bars the Observer interviewed said they serve only tobacco-free shisha to their indoor customers. Another local bar that doesn’t have outside seating advertises tobacco-based shisha on its website.

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

“Our concern about hookah bars … relates back to the fact that we don’t always know what is being smoked in those pipes,” Plescia, the Mecklenburg County health director, said. “We rely for the most part on public complaints or public reports … voluntary enforcement and social enforcement.”

If a health department investigator, visiting a hookah bar due to a complaint, finds evidence of tobacco-based shisha being smoked indoors, he treats it as if he has found evidence of a cigarette being smoked indoors. He will file a report, and a violations letter will go out to the owner. A second violation means a second letter. It takes a third violation to trigger disciplinary action, which hasn’t happened since shortly after the law took effect, Bill Hardister, the department’s environmental health director, said.

“Now, if we do have a violation, they resolve the problem.” Hardister said. “The majority of (hookah bar owners) have been what appears to be very forthcoming with us” on whether tobacco is in use.

“You do have to take their word for it.”