While students and administrators debate the merits of a Yale-wide smoking ban, hookah smoking — currently unregulated in New Haven and across Connecticut — has begun to come under scrutiny.
Maureen McHugh, legislative aide to Democratic State Sen. Gayle Slossberg, said last Thursday that the senator introduced legislation to the Connecticut General Assembly in January that would require regulation of hookah lounges. Though it is still in its early stages, the proposed bill would give the State Department of Health oversight authority over lounges where patrons smoke flavored tobacco, known as shisha, through a communal hookah. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Public Health for further review.
“I think public hookah smoking should be banned because it’s hazardous to the public health,” Dr. Dennis McBride, Milford public health director and the main proponent behind the bill, said Friday.
Because hookah bars are not currently required to have a license, it is unclear how many are in operation in New Haven, said Dr. Marcio Garcia, who is director of health for the New Haven Health Department. He added that this problem is part of the overall confusion regarding the regulation of hookah bars, especially whether they fall under the Connecticut Clean Air Act, which was made effective in 2003 and prohibits smoking in workplaces, including restaurants and bars.
McBride claimed hookah lounges are little more than a loophole in the law.
“There is a whole effort to escape any sort of regulation,” he said.
Such legislation requiring regulation of hookah lounges could affect restaurants like Mediterranea, a Middle Eastern and Italian restaurant on Orange Street that has been open since 1999. The restaurant contains a hookah lounge that can serve up to 30 or 40 people in one business day, explained owner Omar Rajeh.
Rajeh said he is opposed to the regulation of hookah lounges, mainly because he believes it would infringe on individual freedoms. In addition, he explained that for most people, the social aspect of hookah smoking is as much, if not more, important than the smoking itself.
“They love the atmosphere,” Rajeh said, in reference to patrons coming to the lounge.
Mamoun’s on Howe Street, a self-described “falafel restaurant,” is another restaurant in New Haven that allows hookah smoking. Smoking begins after 9:00 p.m. every night but is busiest during the weekend. The restaurant caters to a large international clientele, explained Angela, a waitress at Mamoun’s who asked that her last name not be disclosed. She added that only about half of the smokers are students.
When asked about the possible regulation of hookah lounges, Angela stated that, though she does not consider hookah smoking a problem, she understands that in some respects legislation makes sense.
“I think there probably should be some regulations,” Angela said, adding that if other forms of smoking are regulated by the state, it does not make sense for hookah lounges not to be.
A HEALTH CONCERN
McBride considers hookah lounges too much of a public health risk to be allowed to remain operating. Though the legislation for hookah regulation is still in its infancy and the oversight that would be given to the Department of Public Health remains unclear, McBride hopes that lounges will be banned entirely.
He said that sitting down to smoke shisha for 45 minutes is equivalent to smoking 100 to 200 cigarettes. He added that the secondhand smoking health risks are actually greater with hookah smoking than with other forms, such as cigarette smoking, adding that hookah lounges are aimed particularly at college-aged kids who may not fully understand the risks.
Garcia had similar thoughts with respect to the dangers of hookah smoking.
“I think we are concerned about the exposure of secondhand smoke, whether it’s through tobacco or any other mechanism,” Garcia said. “It’s about the health impact, not really about whether it’s fair or not.”
Dr. James Perlotto, chief of student health at Yale, described by e-mail how the use of a hookah is no less harmful with respect to one’s health than other smoking techniques. He said he would generally support regulation of hookah lounges by the Connecticut State Department of Health.
“Use of tobacco or marijuana has short-term and long-term health hazards, whether inhaled directly, through the traditional ‘filtered’ cigarette, or through an elaborate filter such as a ‘hookah,’” said Perlotto.
Six students interviewed, three of who said they have smoked hookah, expressed mixed feelings regarding regulation, partially due to the unclear nature of what regulation might entail.
“I’d prefer if people didn’t smoke it in [my] vicinity,” said Nicholas Aubin ’14, who said he does not smoke. “If there’s an establishment built for the sole purpose of smoking hookah, I don’t see any problem there.”
Kurt Luthy GRD ’16 said that, while he does smoke hookah, he thinks it would be fine if it was banned in restaurants.
On the other hand, Josef Goodman ’14 said, “As a general rule I don’t put poison in my mouth.”
Spokesman William Gerrish of the Connecticut Department of Public Health said by e-mail Friday that the department is following the proposed legislation, but has not yet taken a position on the bill.
According to an estimate by the American Lung Association, 200 to 300 hookah bars were in operation in the United States in 2007.