By David Farley
Hookah bars are a familiar presence in Bay Ridge—but if the city council has its way, they may soon be a thing of the past. Over the past several years, these establishments have come under close scrutiny by health officials and lawmakers, and a recent legislative push may put them out of business.
The city council is expected to vote soon on a raft of proposals would amend the city’s 2003 Smoke-Free Air Act (SFAA) to include non-tobacco shisha; prohibit the sale of hookah paraphernalia to minors; and restrict the use of non-tobacco shisha in restaurants. The department of health and mental hygiene estimates the number of hookah lounges doubled citywide between 2012 and 2015.
At a city council health committee hearing on February 25, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (a Democrat from northern Manhattan) took particular issue with the way that hookah is marketed to youths. “It is our job to educate people” about the damaging effects of hookah smoking, he said. Bay Ridge Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who introduced one of the bills and has for years warned of numerous and underpublicized health risks, said hookah bars operate under a “loophole” that allows non-tobacco products to be sold. When it comes to hookah bars, it was time, he said, to address “the elephant in the room.”
A Cultural Issue—Or Not?
Bay Ridge is home to the second largest population of Arab-Americans in the country, and hookah bars are mostly associated—rightly or wrongly—with that community. Walk down Third, Fourth or Fifth avenues and you’ll pass numerous lounges nestled among the Polish delis, Irish bars and Greek pastry shops. Evidence of both the diversity of Bay Ridge and the changing demographic, these establishments cater to a clientele attracted not just to the Middle Eastern vibe but to the social aspect of smoking.
In addition to hookah, these businesses serve various Middle Eastern dishes, Arabic coffee, mint tea and smoothies. The names of the different shisha flavors are vaguely healthy and mildly exotic: Blue Mist, Tangerine, Safari Melon, Guava, White Peach. Any night, you can find couples or groups of young people from different backgrounds smoking and socializing, drawn by what is widely perceived to be the “safer” alternative to smoking cigarettes.
And yet, according to the sponsors of these bills, hookah smoking is not as harmless as some people might think, and this is where the risk to public health comes from. According to testimony, the smoke generated even by the non-tobacco shisha, as well as the charcoal used to burn the blend, present health risks that potentially rival if not surpass those of cigarettes. During the hearing, testimony was heard from health experts, cultural organizations—including board members from the Bay Ridge-based Arab American Association of New York (AAANY)—and community representatives, as well as from hookah bar owners from Manhattan and their representatives.
Eager not to appear to be targeting a community that in recent years has found itself under surveillance—and more recently under physical attack—members of the health committee repeatedly stated that this legislation was strictly about public health. Leaders from the local Arab-American community were on hand to testify in support of the legislation and to refute potential charges of cultural harassment.
Dr. Ahmed Jaber, president of the AAANY, testified that the “social fabric of our community was being affected” by hookah bars, and he rejected the notion that hookah smoking was specifically an Arab practice, suggesting instead that its true origins were in the Far East and India. Habib Joudeh, Vice President of the AAANY, similarly urged the committee to treat this as a health issue, saying, “It is not a cultural issue, so don’t feel bashful to go straight for it.” Mr. Joudeh said that he gets daily complaints from families in the community about hookah bars. While both men spoke with a sense of urgency, Mr. Joudeh said, “We are not here to shut down anyone’s business.”
Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, a Democrat from North Brooklyn, voiced concern about how provisions from different bills saddled owners with near impossible-to-meet regulations. He pointed out that the language in these two bills—Int 0139 and Int 1075—is conflicting: “You have to make 50 percent of your sales on 5 percent of the bar.” Committee Chair Corey Johnson acknowledged the point, saying, “For this to make sense we need to tweak this and make sure that there are no conflicts between the bills,” and encouraged the owners to reach out to the bills’ sponsors. Reynoso also urged his peers to keep in mind the distinction between the public health concerns that are the purview of the committee on health and the business models they’re addressing, which was a “different conversation.” When reached for further comment, a spokesperson said that Reynoso “does not support these proposals.”
Hookah-bar owners were represented at the hearing by Muhammed Bashir, who owns bars in Manhattan and Queens; Ariel Ferreira, a consultant representing a consortium of hookah bar owners (mainly from Manhattan); and counsel from the American Hookah Association. While acknowledging the health hazards of even non-tobacco shisha products, opponents of the legislation were concerned about the way the data presented by the DHMH mischaracterized the actual practice of hookah smoking.
They also expressed concern about the way the separate bills taken together represented a threat to their business model. Bashir complained of the difficulties involved in knowing how and whether they could meet the 50 percent sales requirement, suggesting that there simply isn’t a realistic way to calculate such a breakdown. When asked how much of his business currently was devoted to selling hookah, he said, “I have no way of knowing.”
Responding to charges from the DHMH that smoke emitted by the charcoal was at least as hazardous as the burning shisha itself, Bashir noted different products on the market such as e-charcoal, of which the Committee seemed unaware. Bashir was eager to meet further with the sponsors of the bill in order to inform them about the practice of hookah smoking and the steps the industry has taken in recent years to address these very health concerns. “Let us sit with you,” he said.
The Health Risks
Experts from the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and studies from NYU and the American Lung Association, pointed to possible health risks such as lung and stomach cancer, cancer of the mouth and esophagus, heart disease, respiratory issues, and decreased fertility. They also cautioned that hookah smoking could be a gateway to cigarettes, and warned of the dangers of not only secondhand but also thirdhand smoke.
They cited data that suggested that due to the longer duration of hookah sessions and the depth of inhalation, hookah smokers typically inhale a higher amount of toxins than cigarette smokers. In one startling statistic, from the World Health Organization, an hourlong session of hookah smoking can be the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes. Concerns were also raised about the rise of hookah smoking among young people. According to an ALA report, 17 percent of 12th graders had tried hookah in the past year.
Despite the overwhelming scientific data showing the health risks of hookah smoking, the sponsors of the bills admitted that regulating the establishments won’t be easy. Committee chair Corey Johnson said that determining whether shisha contains tobacco has been a challenge due to lack of testing protocols by the DHMH, thus the need to amend the Smoke Free Act.
Jumping on the “Ban” Wagon
Councilmember James Vacca of the Bronx, frustrated by the piecemeal approach of regulation, asked the members of the panel why the council doesn’t just ban hookah bars outright? “Why,” he asked, “are we going around the mulberry bush?” The DHMH representatives seemed open to the idea, but said that such recommendations were outside both the scope of their testimony and the reach of the legislation.
The bills’ sponsors were quick to insist that prohibition was not the goal. Instead they said they wanted to find a way to help local businesses thrive within the confines of the law, even as those confines were set to shrink under the proposed legislation. The bill that Gentile introduced (Int. No. 139-A) would allow existing businesses that earn at least 50 percent of their total gross sales from the onsite sales of non-tobacco smoking products to continue to operate, so long as they register with the DHMH within 180 days of the passage of the legislation. Another bill (Int. No. 1075) would restrict the use of non-tobacco shisha to no more than 5 percent of an establishment’s seating capacity.
The Bay Ridge Connection
This legislation, which according to Gentile, “certainly stops the proliferation” of hookah bars citywide, has its roots in Bay Ridge. During testimony in support of the bills, District Manager Josephine Beckman of Community Board 10 said that the issue “was first brought to our attention at a Community Board 10 hearing by the mother of a 14-year-old who was on his way home from a baseball game and the kids decided to duck into a hookah lounge and ended up in the hospital.”
The incident appears to have been raised during the public session of a November 2010 CB10 meeting; although by this time, a subcommittee tasked with investigating the spread of hookah bars had already been formed and had made recommendations to CB10. In May 2010, the Community Board agreed to “draft a letter to our elected officials to request that they investigate the proliferation of hookah bars and develop a plan with the Department of Health to regulate these bars.” According to minutes from the June 2010 meeting, Councilmember Gentile was already working on legislation that would address community complaints that largely centered around secondhand smoke and quality of life issues.
The health impact of hookah smoke cannot be ignored, and there seems to a unanimous and well-intentioned desire by all stakeholders to do something about it. Councilman Gentile has long been an ally of the Arab-American community in Bay Ridge, most recently by supporting the addition of two Muslim holidays to the public school calendar. At the same time, in the context of Bay Ridge and the climate of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment that is gripping the city and the national discourse, such local laws and narrowly targeted legislation are troubling, especially for communities already alert to the hyper vigilance of their social and religious practices. While the regulation of hookah bars may not be intended to target a particular population, it is difficult to deny that that population’s business owners will be predominantly impacted. The impact of these bills taken together could be devastating to a business model that is currently operating legally and about which there seems to be continued misunderstandings.
The Importance of Education
A theme throughout the hearing was “education,” with both sides wanting to educate the other or educate the public about the dangers or the realities of hookah smoking. Councilmember Rodriguez sees public awareness of the dangers of hookah smoking as a crucial component of the effectiveness of this legislation. Councilmember Reynoso, while speaking out against the way the legislation was structured, also said, “The education campaign is absolutely necessary.”
Even Mr. Bashir felt that educating the committee and the sponsors of the bill about hookah smoking would benefit his cause. Whether the proliferation of hookah bars is seen as an epidemic or as evidence of a changing demographic, the time does seem ripe for education and engagement. And as this legislation shines a spotlight on both public health and cultural issues, there is a unique opportunity here for these different communities to come together.
So, What Happens Now?
While there is no particular timeline for what happens next, Gentile says this is a bill “whose time has come.” The legislation is currently marked as “laid over by committee” meaning simply that there has been a hearing on it. It is now back with committee staff in order to consider revisions based on the testimony from the February 25 hearing.
By phone, Gentile indicated that there might be movement on some of the issues raised during the hearing, particularly on the age requirements and signage, but that had yet to be worked out. When I contacted Ferreira, who testified for the Manhattan hookah bar owners, he said, “As of right now, owners are reaching out to the sponsors of the bill. The 40 business I represent in Washington Heights and Inwood have already met with Council Member Rodriguez. We are looking forward to a meeting with Councilman Gentile and Councilman Reynoso.”
It’s not clear to what degree Bay Ridge hookah bar owners have been involved in any stage of this process. After any such further meetings, the legislation may or may not be revised and would then proceed to a vote—at which point these businesses may very well go up in smoke.