Alongside the Wi-Fi signs and sanitation grades posted on hookah cafés in Bay Ridge, signage of a more unusual sort had gone up on a couple of storefronts in early January: Four notices warned “No One Under 18 Permitted” at Gulf Cafe on Fourth Avenue, and a handwritten sign declared “No I.D., No Shisha!” at Arabesq Arab Cafe on Bay Ridge Avenue.
The warning notices and signs—required under a new law that took effect on January 1—provide the first evidence of what elected officials promise will be a vigorous crackdown on teen hookah use in the city. In July last year, state legislators expanded upon existing law to add “hookah”—water pipes—and “shisha”—the mix of fruit, herbs, and tobacco smoked in the pipes—to the list of tobacco products that merchants are banned from selling to minors.
The impetus for the amendment came from an incident that roiled Bay Ridge in 2010, when a neighborhood teen fell violently ill after smoking and drinking at a hookah joint. The local community board responded to parental concerns by recommending the amendment to the state’s Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act, or ATUPA, that was enacted in July.
“In our opinion, no matter what it’s made of, it should not be smoked by children, whether it’s tobacco, whether it’s herbal, whether it’s fruit,” said Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Board 10.
For hookah businesses, the new rules requiring warning signs and I.D. checks may signal tough times ahead. The problem of teen use began ordinarily enough as an issue for local civic officials, but is now bringing these establishments greater scrutiny from the city and state.
At a meeting in November at Board 10’s offices on Fifth Avenue, elected officials sat alongside local leaders to inform hookah business owners how the new law would affect their operations—and proceeded to outline a raft of new proposals to regulate them.
These measures include mandates for ventilation and air filtration systems; expansion of the city’s indoor smoking ban to include herbal cigarettes and herbal shisha; tougher enforcement of existing laws and licensing requirements; and restrictions on opening new hookah bars from next year onwards and beyond.
As the city clamps down with increasing ferocity on smoking in public places, hookah establishments—whose popularity has soared in recent years in this southern Brooklyn neighborhood—are starting to feel the hurt.
The scrutiny of hookah bars may be occurring against the backdrop of a larger official campaign against tobacco use, but it has rattled some local merchants. Although official and cultural consensus is building against smoking of any kind in public spaces, these business owners take issue with the implicit equation between cigarette smoking and hookah smoking. In their view, hookah is a time-honored mainstay of Middle Eastern traditions.
“This is our culture,” said Sabry Awida, the Egyptian owner of El Basha Café on Bay Ridge Avenue. “In the Middle East countries, we don’t go to clubs. Instead we go to a café. Here they go to bars and clubs. This is how we relax ourselves—have a hookah, play chess or dominoes, eat some good food.”
Awida added he had no problem with the new rules prohibiting sales to teenagers, but bristled at a new requirement that hookah businesses register to sell tobacco and at the proposed measures suggesting an anti-hookah crackdown.
“I don’t like it, but what am I going to do? I have to follow the rules,” he said. “I don’t understand why people all of a sudden are going after us to close our business.”
Not so, according to civic officials. The city’s anti-smoking laws—including the ban on selling tobacco products to minors and on indoor smoking in restaurants and bars—cover hookah bars; but these businesses were able to dodge the rules because distinguishing between herbal shisha and tobacco-based shisha is not easy. It requires testing that city health officials say is too expensive.
That loophole in the law was plugged by banning hookah sales to minors outright, Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, a lead sponsor of the new bill, said at the November meeting. A proposed law to include herbal shisha in the city’s 2002 ban on indoor smoking in restaurants would similarly close an oversight in the law, officials said.
The goal is to stop the proliferation of hookah bars, cafes, and lounges in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, which had 19 at last count. Their growth in recent years is attributed in part to the neighborhood’s large Arab population, but their popularity cuts across cultural, ethnic, and gender lines. Census results do not break down numbers for Arab-Americans, but the official 2010 count saw the number of Asians in Brooklyn jump 41 percent over the previous decade.
Kareem Meawad, a senior at Fort Hamilton High School on Shore Road, testified to hookah’s popularity among children “from the age of 13” in his community.
“Hookah is part of being an Arab,” said Meawad, who supports the ban on sales to teens. “Everywhere you go, you see hookah, hookah, hookah. The kids are around all that, and they have pride in being Arab. [They think] ‘Let’s do hookah, it’s our thing.’ ”
Not everyone agrees that hookah is intrinsic to Middle Eastern culture. Habib Joudeh, manager of a pharmacy on Fifth Avenue, opposes hookah bars as hangouts where people waste their time and ruin their health. He dismissed the cultural aspect of hookah as a myth and a ploy.
“This has nothing to do with Arabic culture,” Joudeh said, explaining that the water pipe is not native to the Middle East, contrary to popular perception, but traveled there via India. “It’s only an excuse that has been used. The shops have started popping up like groceries because it is lucrative selling [hookah] for 10 or 15 dollars a pop.”
In fact, smoking shisha could be seen as un-Islamic, he said, adding that he himself opposed hookah more on health than religious grounds. “It’s really like a chimney inside, and if you’re going to hurt yourself, it’s against the religion, which says you must do no damage to yourself,” he explained.
According to a 2005 study by the World Health Organization, hookah can do greater harm than cigarettes given the typically longer smoking sessions. Other experts argue even herbal shisha—like all organic materials when smoked—can have damaging side effects. Civic and elected officials cite these studies to bolster the case for tighter regulation.
“There should be a level law” for all types of smoking, Beckmann said. “The bottom line is this is a health issue, not a cultural issue.”
Aparna Narayanan is a writer based in Bay Ridge.