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Should hookah bars remain open despite Washington's indoor smoking ban?

Washington banned indoor smoking nearly seven years ago, but one exception survives: hookah lounges.

Local health departments have struggled to shut them down. 

The lounges say they’re private clubs, not public venues, so the law doesn’t apply. They all charge some sort of membership fee, typically about $5.

That defense doesn’t sway health officials, like Frank DiBiase of the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department. His office inspected three hookah bars in Tacoma last year.

“After going out there and looking at the situation we determined that, Yeah, it definitely seems that they are in violation of the state’s smoking in public places law,” says DiBiase.

Last week, DiBiase announced a settlement with the Venus and Mars Lounge, which agreed to stop offering tobacco products. The lounge isn’t closing entirely; it’ll experiment with a smokeless, tobacco-free product that’s infused into the air from heated rocks.

The settlement came nearly a year after the health department first contacted the lounge. He says another hookah lounge will get served its papers in the next few days.

Trendy on campus, but cultural for others

In a hookah lounge, you sit around on couches or arm-chairs with a group of friends and puff on sweetened tobacco. The hookah itself is a tall water pipe, typically with multiple hoses coming out of it.  Customers might pay $15 or 20 to rent the pipe and for a tobacco mixture, with flavors like apple or peach.

Hookah lounges have been a trendy business near college campuses across the country.

“The thing is, hookah might be trendy in this country, but it is an old tradition,” says Nebil Mohammed of Seattle’s Medina Lounge. “My grandma smokes it, my mom smokes it. It’s like a coffee.”

For some immigrants, it’s an alternative to a bar, where they can play cards and share a pipe.

“Most of them are from the Middle East, from Islamic states. They don’t go out and drink,” says Mohammed, whose club has a $5 membership and doesn’t serve food. “So, they just sit down and chit chat. It’s more like a social thing, where you sit down and talk about everything, you catch up on everything -- what happened around the world.”

A gateway to youth smoking?

One survey in King County found more high school seniors were smoking hookah tobacco than cigarettes. DiBiase of the Tacoma health department says people underestimate the potential dangers of hookah smoke.

“There's kind of a misunderstanding that somehow because the smoke goes through a water reservoir and you inhale it, that it’s not as harmful. But there’s been a fair amount of research and the risks are as great or greater than smoking a cigarette”

During an hour on a water pipe, you can inhale as much smoke as a hundred cigarettes, according to a study from the World Health Organization. The amount of toxic material inhaled is probably similar to cigarettes, according to other published studies.

One reason the hookah bars can stay open is simply a lack of manpower in the local health departments. King County is down to just one person to enforce all the tobacco laws -- and the main focus is on retail shops that sell to minors.

The legal proceedings can be cumbersome, involving documenting the smoking violations, and then working with lawyers to file the appropriate legal papers.

"Over the past several years, we have had a number of them pop up," says Scott Neal, who oversees tobacco prevention for Public Health Seattle & King County. "We have issued notices and warnings probably to all of them. I think eight have shut down, and four are still operating."

Recently, he's heard from the cities of Renton, Kent and Bellevue that businesses have applied for business licenses to open private hookah lounges.

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Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.