A controversial state bill to regulate hookah bars moved one step closer to becoming a reality last week when it passed the Connecticut General Assembly’s Public Health Committee.
The bill, introduced in January, would prohibit new hookah bars from opening after July 1 and order the Connecticut Department of Public Health to regulate the use of hookahs at already-existing venues. The hookah legislation passed the committee by a vote of 19 to nine, and will next come up for a vote in both the state Senate and Assembly sometime in mid-April. State Senator Gayle Slossberg, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement that public health would benefit by state oversight of hookahs.
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Dr. Mario Garcia, head of the New Haven health department, said he found hookah bars particularly concerning because they are dedicated to the smoking of tobacco.
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“Our concern is secondhand exposure to individuals,” Garcia said.
Although he acknowledged the health risk smoking poses, Garcia said that he did not think a ban on hookah lounges would be the best way to promote health. He said he preferred ways to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking and turn social norms against smoking, calling a ban “not optimal.”
He said that in the past, smoking bans have led smokers to smoke elsewhere, but not give up the dangerous habit. Regardless, New Haven will comply with a ban if the bill passes, Garcia added.
In preparation for committee debate over the bill, the Office of Legislative Research released a report in February 2011 about the health and legal issues associated with hookah. The report quoted a 2005 WHO advisory saying, “The waterpipe smoker may … inhale as much smoke during one session as a cigarette smoker would inhale consuming 100 or more cigarettes.”
Currently hookahs — communal waterpipes which people use to smoke flavored tobacco — are unregulated by the state of Connecticut, while cigarettes and cigars are regulated. However, many are opposed to the bill on the grounds that it would restrict liberty.
“[This bill is] just big government being intrusive and overregulating,” said Senator Jason Welch, a Republican who voted against the bill on the Public Health Committee.
Welch acknowledged that some issues surrounding hookahs have to be addressed, such as their upkeep, because improperly cleaned hookahs can spread infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.
It will take at least another week, while the text of the bill is finalized in accordance with state law, for the bill to come to the floor for a vote, said state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney. Looney withheld judgment on the bill.
“I certainly support the regulations component of it,” Looney said. “Whether or not there should be an outright ban I’m not so sure, it might be going too far.”
He noted that only four or five hookah lounges currently exist in Connecticut, and that the bill would prohibit any new ones from opening. At least three of those venues are located in New Haven: Mamouns, La Sheesh and Mediterranea.
Workers at Mamoun’s, which offers hookah in addition to falafel, and La Sheesh Hookah Lounge were not troubled by the possible ban. They said they did not think the bill, even if it became a law, would affect their businesses.
“I don’t really care about it; I’ll just deal with it,” said a worker at Mamoun’s, who would only be identified by his first name, Darek.
Regulation of hookah smoking could include requiring lounges to comply with ventilation standards or to post warnings that hookahs are dangerous, similar to those found on cigarette boxes. The bill would not prohibit smoking in outdoor areas, where the danger of secondhand smoke is reduced.
“We have great ventilation, so I am not worried,” said Akhil Sarwar, a worker at La Sheesh, referencing the unlikelihood that any regulation would ban hookah in well-ventilated spaces. He said that the ban would not affect La Sheesh’s business very much.
La Sheesh is located on Church Street between Crown Street and Chapel Street.
In an interview with the News in February, Mediterranea owner Omar Rajeh decried the regulation of hookahs as an infringement on individual liberties. This has long been a controversial issue in Connecticut, Garcia said.
But, Welch said, people know there are risks associated with tobacco smoking.
When informed about the bill, three Yale students said they were strongly against any potential hookah ban.
“I would die without late-night hookah at Mamoun’s,” Juliet Liu ’14 said.
Najeeb Husain ’12 said it would be the loss of a “good place to chill,” as he would be confined to smoking hookah at home.
There are approximately 500 hookah lounges in the United States.