Officials look to clarify tobacco regulations in hookah bars

The institutions attract a younger demographic and have been criticized by communiy organizations

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 19, 2013

Current regulations are poorly understood, but officials have not yet determined how best to address the rising popularity of hookah bars — and their possible connection to recent increases in crime.

Though some perceive hookah as a relatively innocuous indulgence, community organizations and lawmakers are exploring the connection between increased crime and hookah bars in Providence, as well as the negative health impacts of smoking hookah — a concern shared by the medical community.

As the popularity of hookah bars has increased both locally and nationally, there has been rising concern that regulations surrounding their development are not well known and difficult to enforce.

“Certainly the hookah bars are not a positive development,” said City Councilman Sam Zurier, Ward 2, adding that there is “concern about the types of development in the Thayer Street area.”

“The general feeling is there seem to be a lot of problems” with the clientele that frequent the hookah bars, said Robin Remy, executive director of the Thayer Street District Management Authority. The police “feel very strongly” that the hookah bars attract a younger demographic, which can be problematic for the local area, she added.

“The hookah is absolutely a very distinct component” of the crime increase, Remy said, adding that all measures — within reason — should be considered “to make (Thayer) a safe place to be.”

Installation of surveillance cameras on Thayer Street was a “high priority item” at Tuesday’s TSDMA board meeting, Remy said, adding that the College Hill Neighborhood Association and local police support the measure.

Allison Spooner, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, said the group supports the proposal because its “concern is public safety on College Hill.”

But not all community members perceive hookah bars negatively.

“It doesn’t seem shady from the outside,” said Kate Robards ’15, adding that though she has never been to a hookah bar, she would be indifferent to stricter regulations for them.

“I don’t really have any negative perceptions,” said Victor Vergil ’14. “I’ve been to (a hookah bar) and I had a pretty good experience,” he said, adding “it wasn’t shady — people were cool.”

Regardless of how they feel about hookah bars, few people are clear on the existing regulations.

“I do not know the specific regulations,” Zurier said, but Remy said the opacity of the regulations is one of the barriers the TSDMA faces.

Very little is known “about what licenses are required (to sell hookah),” Remy said. “That’s actually one of the things we are trying to figure out.”

“I think people are confused about it,” said Arthur Salisbury, president of the Jewelry District Association.

“We’d like to see some clarity in regulation,” Spooner said.

“There should be an effort to educate people about local laws,” said Ryan Paine ’17, adding that he thinks the lack of understanding is problematic. “Whatever laws are currently in effect should be enforced,” Paine added.

Despite the confusion, clarity can be found in the 2004 Smoke Free Work Places Act, which bans smoking in restaurants and other public places, but exempts smoking bars — including hookah bars. Such bars are considered legal under the condition that “revenue generated from the serving of tobacco products is greater than the total combined revenue generated by the serving of beverages and food,” the law says.

“Checking that the law is being adhered to would require an audit,” said Karina Wood, policy director for the American Lung Association of Rhode Island. To find out whether the majority of a hookah bar’s revenue is actually from tobacco sales, bars would “have to be audited on a regular basis,” said Wood, adding that this is not a practical option.

Unlike liquor laws that can be easily enforced by police officers checking identification, audits are not simple or convenient, which discourages the enforcement of the existing law, Wood said.

“The American Lung Association would like to see a smoke free workplace act with no loopholes,” Wood said, adding that it is important to have clear laws with regulations that can be easily enforced.

Some states have reformed their tobacco laws to include fewer exemptions for hookah bars. Michigan and North Carolina have prohibited the smoking of hookah in any establishment that serves liquor or food, according to a study published by the American Lung Association. Boston and Maine have changed their laws to prohibit the smoking of hookah indoors, the study said.

In comparison to New York and New Jersey, where establishments are exempt from smoking bans if only 10 percent and 15 percent of their sales respectively comes from tobacco products, Rhode Island’s 50 percent benchmark trends high.

Hookah is a “novelty that is proliferating,” Wood said. “A hookah bar is offering something that seems exotic and different to people.” There is a general misconception — especially among young people — that hookah is less harmful than smoking cigarettes, she added.

“That is not true at all,” she said, estimating that though variable, a half-hour session of smoking hookah could be roughly equivalent to smoking ten cigarettes.

“Hookah carries the same health risks as cigarettes,” and there are other negative health effects associated with the charcoal, Wood said.

Sharing water pipes with multiple users carries its own set of risks, namely the spread of “infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, herpes, influenza and hepatitis,” according to the ALA study.

“We would like to see hookah bars disappear,” said Wood. She said the first step toward decreasing their popularity is educating people about the risks associated with smoking hookah because “once people learn how harmful it is to your lungs,” it will “take the allure away.”

Remy said that the TSDMA is interested in better understanding and verifying a correlation between hookah bars and crime rates, as well as their legal regulation.

“We have to respect the rights of the businesses,” Remy said, adding that though there seem to be a lot of unknown variables surrounding hookah bars, it is important to study the issues at hand.

For now, changes in hookah bar regulation do not seem likely.

New tobacco laws are scheduled to go into effect in Providence Jan. 3, Zurier said. “The ordinance targeted flavored tobacco products” that were being marketed toward youth, he added.

The city’s website says the laws ban “flavored tobacco products and the redemption of tobacco industry coupons and multi-pack discounts.” Hookah bars and smoking bars are exempt from the new laws.


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  1. Maybe we should spend less time worrying about High School students at Hookah bars and more time worrying about the sketchy, low-life biker gangs that call Thayer street home.

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