Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hookah bars and New York's smoking ban

Moira Herbst:

Layali Beirut, an ornate Lebanese cafe in the Little Egypt section of Astoria, is packed nearly every night.

Patrons cluster around tables on terraces, drawing on Middle Eastern water pipes called hookahs while they play round after round of backgammon. As they puff on fruit-flavored tobacco, or shisha, dense clouds of smoke merge into a flavored haze that fills the area.

"The hookahs allow us to come together and unwind," Beirut-born Mahmoud Abraham, co-owner of the cafe, said. "It's an important part of our culture."

But while customers at Layali Beirut - and the nine other hookah bars on Steinway St. - are enjoying the centuries-old tradition, neighbors like Laurie Lunenberg, 46, are furious.

Contending that the smoke from the bars is putting her health at risk, Lunenberg is organizing a group of residents living above or near the cafes to protest that the state's smoking ban, the 2003 Clean Indoor Air Act, is not being enforced there.

"It's aggravating my allergies so terribly that it hurts to talk sometimes," said Lunenberg, who lives on 38th St. behind Layali Beirut and the adjacent Al Sukaria Egyptian cafe.

She has called on the local community board, the city and state Health Departments, the public advocate's office and local City Council members to urge enforcement of the ban, which would effectively put the cafes out of business.

Last fall, Lunenberg presented a petition signed by 30 neighbors asking that Queens Community Board 1 shut down the outdoor terraces where customers smoke. But board representatives told her it is legal to smoke outside, and their hands were tied unless the law is changed.

Franciska Knippel, 77, who has lived on 38th St. for 40 years with her asthmatic husband, Eugene, signed the petition.

"It's aggravating my husband's asthma so much we can't open the windows anymore," Knippel said.

The city Health Department said in a statement: "We enforce the Smoke-Free Air Act in hookah cafes. We inspect them upon complaint and issue violations as appropriate."

But many of the fines have been dismissed, as some hookah bar owners have argued at hearings that shisha is made primarily of fruit. "It's not like a cigarette," said Gamal Dewidar, who manages his brother's Elkhaiam cafe and Hookah Palace on Steinway St. "There is a little tobacco and honey mixed in, but it's not dangerous."

Health experts say, however, that hookah smoke is no less harmful than cigarette smoke.

Cafe owners contend that their establishments should be eligible for a cultural exemption from the law, which exempts tobacco bars only if they serve alcohol. In accordance with Muslim custom, Steinway St. hookah bars do not serve alcohol.

City Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) has been petitioning the Health Department to grant the hookah bars an exemption. "No one should be punished for not serving alcohol, much less when it's for religious reasons," he said.

Hookah Tradition Clashes With City No-Smoking Law

Hankerin' for a smoke spot? Head for the hookah joint!

4 Comments:

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tobacco bars, whether they serve alcohol or not, are not exempted from the law unless they have existed since 2001. Any establishment which did not operate as a tobacco bar as of 2001 is not subject to this grandfather exemption anyway, so it is not a relevant issue here. See ยง 17-502, jj, of the law.

 
At 8:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is the same problem in Bay Ridge. The cafe near my house (which opened only a couple of months ago) keeps all the glass doors/walls open when its warm enough to. You start to smell/inhale this smoke when you reach either corner and it whafs across the street as well. There is no way for me to get to my apartment with out inhaling this smoke. Additionally, they clean out their pipes by banging them on the concrete out back of their building.. waking my neighbors and I at all hours. The smoke also makes its way in to my apartment from my windows, so I can no longer keep them open, at all!! I hate to think what it will be like come spring and summer. While this may be a tradition in the patrons of these cafes home countries, there are laws here that ban smoking, this should fall under the same law. This is not a religious tradition.

 
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