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Antismoking Bill May Mean the End of Hookah Houses 

Wednesday, May 25 2011
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California's last governor was so committed to lighting up that he kept a cigar tent outside his office, vetoed the state-park beach smoking ban, and even went out of his way to demonstrate that the occasional Cuban won't impair a man's ability to procreate.

The election of smoke-averse Jerry Brown might be the end of days for area puffers — especially those who don't favor cigarettes.

The state Senate passed SB332, allowing landlords to ban smoking on their properties. (The bill has moved to the state Assembly.) More pressingly, the state Senate has taken up SB575, a bill hatched by state Sen. Paul DeSaulnier (D-Walnut Creek) to close "loopholes" in the 1994 workplace smoking ban.

In the name of protecting employees from secondhand smoke, the bill would eliminate smoking in places we didn't know still allowed it: breakrooms, hotel lobbies, and banquet rooms. It also targets tobacco shops and hookah lounges.

As you might expect, tobacco shops and hookah lounges are upset. "As a business owner, I'm sympathetic," Senator DeSaulnier tells SF Weekly. "We're just trying for a fair playing field."

But how fair? Many Democratic state senators (including San Francisco's Leland Yee) have promised to support the bill if it is amended to make an exception for cigar bars that don't serve food or drink. DeSaulnier says that such an amendment is forthcoming — but that it is unlikely to exempt hookah lounges. "There's an argument that says they're not in compliance with current law," he says.

Smoking is currently permissible at independently owned businesses that (among other lawyerly factors) can demonstrate that their "main purpose" is the sale of tobacco. Some of the hookah cafes that have proliferated in California insist that they sell more hookah than food or drink, which makes them legal.

DeSaulnier disagrees: "If you're going to run a restaurant, that's one thing. But if it's a cafe or lounge with secondhand smoke, employees need to be protected. In this kind of labor market, workers should have the right to know what kind of business people are running."

Unlike cigar retailers, hookah houses don't enjoy the lobbying efforts of trade groups and tobacco companies.

This inspired SF Weekly to troll local hookah joints and ask employees: "Did you know there's smoking going on here?"

They did. The manager of one popular spot says, "Of course everyone here knows. If my employees could sign and say they accept this environment, they would all sign!" He adds that regulators have little understanding of hookah: "Even the health department, when they came in, I had to show them what to look for. I showed them the plastic tips and how the water vapor works. I explained to them that it's dried fruit, not tobacco."

He added, "Make sure you put that in! It's apples! It's fruit!"

About The Author

Alan Scherstuhl

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