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Council passes bill to choke off hookah bars

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The city’s no longer letting hookah bars off the hook.

A bill cracking down of the water-pipe watering holes passed the Council on Sept. 27, restricting the flavored “shisha” mixtures smoked in hookahs just like tobacco, tightly regulating existing hookah bars, banning the opening of new owns, and outlawing the practice for anyone under 21.

“Today we once and for all clear the air on the dangers of hookah smoking,” said Councilman Vincent Gentile’s (D–Bay Ridge), who sponsored the bill. “Any way you cut it, hookah smoke is no joke. It is not a safe smoking alternative, and restricting minors makes the decision to smoke up to those of adult age.”

Starting six months after the mayor signs the bill into law, even non-tobacco shisha will be subject to the city’s Smoke-Free Air Act — which bans most indoor tobacco smoking — making it illegal to smoke hookah indoors except in the bars that meet strict requirements for ventilation and other measures.

Existing hookah bars will have three years to bring their businesses up to sanitation, ventilation, and fire code requirements, and are forbidden to relocate or expand.

Hookah bars selling shisha mixtures that contain tobacco will have to obtain permits to continue operating, and all will have to prove that at least half of their profits come from shisha sales.

Gentile began his quest to snuff out hookah bars back in 2010, when he claims a flood of complaints came to his office as the craze swept though his Bay Ridge district.

In addition to warning of what it calls “significant health risks to smokers and nonsmokers,” the text of the legislation cites a five-fold increase in hookah bars throughout the city over the past five years — based on searches for “hookah” on the review website Yelp. A recent search on the site turned up 823 results.

The popular belief that smoking shisha through a water pipe is less dangerous than cigarettes contributed to the hookah bar boom, but is contradicted by studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Community Board 10’s district manager said she hopes the bill will help clarify the dangers of smoking shisha.

“This bill will save lives,” said Josephine Beckmann. “Hookah has grown into this big fad, and there’s been a lot of misinformation on the health impact. Health advocates have found that hookah is dangerous and it encourages young people to smoke.”

Beckmann said that the part of the bill increasing ventilation regulations on existing hookah bars was a result of the complaints the community board frequently receives from families who live near the bars and are worried about secondhand smoke effects.

One Ridge hookah bar owner complained that the new law would scuttle his expansion plans, and he also questioned the feasibility of gauging the proportions of his bar’s sales.

“I don’t know how they’re going to enforce the rule — how are they going to keep track of it? Do we have to write down everything — how much we sell, how much we don’t sell?” said Sai Nasan, the co-owner of Bai’Dar Café on Third Avenue. “It’s nonsense, honestly. You can’t keep exact track of everything.”

Nasan said that profits from Bai’Dar are split nearly 50–50 between food and hookah sales, and that he would fight if the city threatened to shut them down over a month where sales were split 51–49.

The Department of Health will be tasked with generating a formula for existing hookah bar owners to determine how they should track sales and adhere to the requirement that they make at least half of their profits from shisha sales, according to Gentile’s communications director, Matthew Kazlowski.

But another local hookah bar owner was more sanguine, saying he will have no problem bringing his business up to code should the new bill become law.

“This is manageable,” said Alex Aramo, who owns Mist Hookah Lounge on Third Avenue. “If this is your business from day one, 10 years ago, and you don’t want to develop yourself, understand the market, understand the people, then you’ll be afraid. I’m a hustler, I read the market, I see what it needs, and I’ll do whatever the law says.”

Another Ridgite agreed, saying that the bill’s ban on new hookah bars could actually help owners of existing shisha spots.

“I agree with that part, because it’s going to kill the competition for the ones that are already open,” said Mike Soltla, who hits up a local Ridge hookah bar regularly.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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