Up in Smoke? NYC vs. Its Burgeoning Hookah Bars

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Proposed city regulations seem to be driven by health concerns. But business and cultural concerns are in the mix

 

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Chris Gelardi/The Brooklyn Ink

In Bay Ridge, it’s one of the most popular ways to relax. In the East Village, college students and sharply dressed young professionals do it while working on their laptops. Along Steinway Street in Astoria, it seems as if every other storefront is dedicated to it. In Washington Heights, people sit in lawn chairs on the sidewalk and do it while soaking up sunlight.

People smoking hookah has become a common scene in New York City, and the number of hookah bars has exploded in recent years. According to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “the number of hookah bars in the City more than doubled between April 2012 and August 2015.” But many of those businesses could be in jeopardy as the City Council considers legislation aimed at reigning in hookah’s rapid expansion.

The campaign against hookah bars is not altogether new. The rise of hookah is occurring as the city continues its two decades-longNYC Smoke-Free” campaign. For a number of years, concerned community members have been calling on the city to address the health concerns surrounding hookah, particularly among minors. As hookah has risen in popularity, meanwhile, New York hookah bars have successfully exploited loopholes in the city’s otherwise strict smoking laws— loopholes that City Council officials are trying to close with the proposed legislation.

Regulating an already booming industry has proven tricky for city lawmakers, however. National discourse about Arab Americans, especially during this year’s presidential election, has made some conversations related to hookah particularly sensitive. Councilmembers say they want what’s best for everyone in the city, but some small business owners and Arab cultural advocates say that the bills as written go too far.

 

The Legislation

There are only two noteworthy restrictions on the sale and service of hookah in New York City: It can only be sold to adults 18 and older, and the shisha—the flavored, traditionally tobacco-based substance that is burned and smoked in a hookah—must be of an herbal variety that doesn’t contain any actual tobacco.

Four bills under consideration by City Council would significantly add to that list of regulations.

The main leaders of the effort are Councilman Vincent Gentile of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights in Brooklyn, who sponsors the cornerstone piece of legislation, and Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Washington Heights and Inwood, Manhattan, who sponsor three supporting bills.

Councilman Gentile’s bill calls for a moratorium on new hookah bars, and more. Existing businesses that earn at least half of their revenue from hookah would be allowed to continue to serve it, as long as they register with the Health Department. That means restaurants and bars that currently serve hookah on the side and make most of their money from food or beverage sales would be barred from serving it anymore.

Gentile’s bill also establishes strict regulations on hookah bar registration. Under the bill, hookah bars would have to re-register with the Health Department every year, each time proving that more than half of their revenue the previous year came from hookah. Registration would be withheld from any establishment that switched locations or expanded, as well as for any hookah bar with outstanding smoke-related violations. The bill would also establish a special tribunal, which would have the power to revoke the registration of any hookah bar caught using shisha containing tobacco.

Two of Councilman Rodriguez’s bills would simply raise the legal age for the purchase and consumption of non-tobacco shisha to 21, which is New York City’s legal age for consuming tobacco, and prohibit the sale of non-tobacco shisha to anywhere other than a licensed hookah bar, tobacco bar, or smoke shop.

Rodriguez’s third bill would require hookah bars to establish explicit hookah-smoking sections which, among other things, would not be allowed to take more than five percent of the establishment’s total seating.

That bill in particular has caused some anxiety for hookah bar owners in the city. As several of them pointed out at a February hearing, Gentile’s requirement that hookah constitute more than half of a hookah bar’s revenue and Rodriguez’s requirement that only five percent of establishment seating be dedicated to hookah creates a conflict in which it’s almost impossible for hookah bars to both stay in business and abide by the law.

Gentile told The Brooklyn Ink that, by his understanding, changes were going to be made to Rodriguez’s five percent seating limit. “We’re not looking to put small businesses out of existence,” he said.

Russell Murphy, Councilman Rodriguez’s chief of staff, confirmed that thinking, predicting that there would be changes to the bill before it saw the full council. “We’re still working through what those changes are exactly, but as it’s raised right now is not what will be passed. I can definitely say that,” he said.

When asked about the future of these bills, Gentile predicted that it’d hit the floor of the council within the next month.

 

Business Concerns

Although Gentile claims that this legislation is not intended to put anybody out of business, Ariel Ferreira, a small business consultant and advocate based in northern Manhattan, expressed concern at the February hearing that the bills would hurt businesses that serve hookah.

“This additional revenue has helped many restaurants, bars, and nightclubs stay in business when combating rising and uncontrollable commercial rent,” Ferreria said. Since businesses that rely on hookah for less than half of their revenue would be barred from serving it under the bill, she said these establishments would be threatened.

Ferreria mentioned a business that she represents, whose rent recently went up by $10,000 a month. “Revenues from their hookah sales helped prevent them from laying people off and/or shutting down,” she said.

Abed Ayoub, national legal and policy director at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., echoed Ferreria’s concerns. He’s dealt with the adverse economic effects of strict hookah regulations in other places in the U.S., and he said he’s seen firsthand the devastating effects they can have on small businesses.

“What we’ve seen across the country is when you do something like this, and you limit the sale or you limit the hours, these places are closing down,” he said. He mentioned a case in Maryland in which a hookah bar owner put $100,000 into his business, but had to shut it down because of unreasonable regulations. “Now he’s going into foreclosure, and he’s losing his house.”

“You have workers, you have employees, you have staff that you have to worry about, and their benefits and healthcare,” Ayoub said. “This isn’t just limiting someone smoking a water pipe.”

Bay Ridge alone, a neighborhood with an approximate population of 75,000, has between 15 and 20 businesses that serve hookah. It’s unclear how many of those would meet the half-revenue requirement.

It’s also unclear exactly how City Council would amend Rodriguez’s bill limiting the seating capacity of hookah serving. Gentile agrees with the complaints of hookah bar owners, and doesn’t think that seating requirements should conflict with revenue requirements, but it’s not possible to know just how the bill will be reworded until the council considers it.

Alex Aramo, owner of Mist Café and Hookah Lounge in Bay Ridge, said that he respects the need for regulations, “but in the end, it must not affect business. You have to take care of the businesses.”

 

Hookah versus NYC

Although hookah regulations today are minimal, hookah bar owners have been feeling the heat from the city for a number of years.

In Dec. 2014, the New York City Health Department, in conjunction with New York University, conducted an undercover sting operation. They secretly tested the shisha from 13 hookah bars in Manhattan and Queens to see if they were in compliance with the 2002 law banning the use of tobacco in hookah. According to the Health Department, tobacco was found in the shisha from all 13 establishments.

In Bay Ridge, community members have voiced concern about underage hookah smoking ever since a neighborhood teenager got sick and had to go to the hospital after drinking and smoking at a local hookah bar in 2010.

According to the few hookah workers who agreed to speak to The Brooklyn Ink, scandals like these have created an environment in which the pressure on hookah bars prevents them from vocally defending their businesses. “They don’t want a target on their back,” said one Brooklyn hookah bar worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

Cultural Concerns

Hookah smoking, of course, is a social tradition throughout much of the Middle East, as well as in Middle Eastern and, particularly, Arab communities here in the U.S. Although hookah has expanded its customer base in New York City—most notably to the Latino-run hookah bars in northern Manhattan and the high-end hookah bars of lower Manhattan—the hookah bars in two of the city’s most hookah-dense areas are still mostly owned and run by Arabic speakers in Astoria, Queens and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Thus the question arises: How far can hookah regulations go without encroaching on cultural boundaries?

For Councilman Gentile, whose Bay Ridge houses the densest Arabic-speaking population in Brooklyn, the answer is clear: “This is not a cultural issue.”

According to Gentile, the fight for hookah regulation stems from community concerns about health and the safety of minors. “Community members and parents from my community came to me—the Arab-American community—came to me and said, ‘Our children, young children, are being allowed to go into hookah bars to smoke.’ And they were outraged by it and they said that this has to come to an end. We have to be able to regulate this so that these hookah bars are not taking advantage of our kids.”

To back his claim that this is not a cultural issue, Gentile points to cultural groups, including the New York Chapter of the Muslim American Society, which wrote a letter of formal support for Gentile’s hookah regulations. “We don’t see any act of discrimination against the Arab or Middle Eastern Culture,” the letter said. Additionally, Ahmad Jaber, founder of the Arab American Association of New York, which is located in Bay Ridge, spoke in support of regulation efforts at the February hearing, emphasizing that “hookah smoking is not a cultural issue.”

But Ayoub disagrees. To him, hookah is undoubtedly “an Arab cultural item. It’s something that’s been part of the community for hundreds of years.”

Although he said that he couldn’t speak directly to the situation in New York City, Ayoub notes that “a lot of what we’ve seen in certain areas is a bit of discriminatory intent behind the bills.” He pointed to Maryland, where he says a city council limited the legal hours for serving hookah because neighbors wanted to drive out the African American and Arab American patrons that frequented the hookah bars. “These rules were intended to impact these communities of color,” he said. “They’re very problematic.”

Hookah in New York has indeed become popular beyond the Arab community. Still, there’s evidence of hookah’s Arab cultural importance in the city.

To find it, one need look no further than a store called Hookahnuts on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, owned by Ziad and Doha Khaled. The store carries more than 75 hookah pipe designs, as well as a variety of hoses and other parts. The “nuts” in Hookahnuts refers to the dozens of types of nuts—roasted in-house—and dried fruit that the Khaleds sell for customers to munch on while smoking. They also sell traditionally decorated trays, silver, and glassware for tea and Turkish coffee, all for accompaniment with hookah.

Ziad complained that, since tobacco in shisha was outlawed by the city, he’s had to change his business practices. “I used to sell six brands [of shisha], and had forty flavors for each brand. Now I only sell one brand,” he said. To compensate, he shifted the focus of the store toward gift items and added a small specialty Arabic grocery section to his store. He said the city needs to come up with ways to protect minors from hookah that don’t negatively affect local businesses.

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Chris Gelardi/The Brooklyn Ink

In Bay Ridge, there are two obvious subgenres of hookah bars. On one hand are places like Mist Café, which looks like a high-end lounge with its low booths, stained wood bar, and dim lighting. Although Arabic music plays over the speakers, the clientele on any given night is markedly multicultural, and noticeably young.

On the other hand are places like Coconut Hookah. Enter the Bay Ridge Avenue hookah bar on a weeknight, and you’ll find Arabic speakers—mostly older men—playing cards, gossiping, and smoking their hookah in a plain-looking restaurant with standard brown tables and metal chairs.

Cultural sensitivities aside, compromise is possible, Ayoub noted. In northern Virginia, he said a local government came up with rules regarding proper ventilation in hookah bars in order to ensure clean, safe air for patrons. “Those businesses complied,” he said. “And they’re booming. They’re doing very well. They didn’t limit the hours, they didn’t limit the numbers of seats they could serve—that’s ridiculous. They came up with a way for the business owners to achieve their objective of having a safe and sanitary environment.”

Similarly, in his hometown of Dearborn, Mich., the most Arab-dense city in the U.S., Ayoub pointed to a joint effort between the Dearborn City Council and local hookah bar owners to come up with legislation to limit the smoking of hookah in public parks. “If they can take that approach in Dearborn where it’s majority Arab American and you have hookah bars on every corner, then they can do that in other cities,” he said.

“So there are ways to work with the business community,” he added, “to come up with solutions for everybody.”

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