Smoked out! Ridge board votes for crackdown on hookah bars

Gentile wants to smoke out hookah bars
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Bay Ridge civic leaders are demanding that the city douse the neighborhood’s allegedly burdensome hookah bars and cafes.

Opponents say that the Arab-influenced hangout spots create a health hazard for patrons; are attracting teenagers who should be in smoke-free environments; and are causing a nuisance for nearby residents, who are forced to endure a sickly sweet smog produced by the water pipes, which have cultural significance in the Arab world.

“It’s hooking kids and wasting their time,” said Habib Joudeh, a member of Community Board 10 and board member with the Arab American Association on Fifth and Ovington Avenues, whose members have been complaining about the secondhand smoke produced by Ramala Coffee Shop, a neighboring hookah lounge. “God only knows what they are loading in these things.”

No deity need be evoked: Hookah bar owners say that their smokeable mix, called shisha, consists of dried fruits, molasses, honey and sometimes tobacco.

After some local complaints, the community board voted unanimously last week for a series of measures that members hope will lead to more regulation at hookahs bars, and the creation of a protocol to better enforce and perform testing at existing bars.

The city’s landmark Smoke-Free Air Act does cover hookah bars — if there’s tobacco in the pipes. But the Health Department conceded that it rarely undertakes tobacco testing because it is expensive.

“The Health Department responds to complaints regarding these establishments in the same way as with all other food-service establishments,” said a spokeswoman. “If they are found in violation of the Smoke-Free Air Act, they may be issued violations and suspension or revocation of their permit.”

A manager at Your House café and hookah lounge at Fourth Avenue and 69th Street said the business makes every effort to eliminate secondhand smoke, pointing to a ventilator that carries the cloud “three stories” up.

“All the people around here are our friends,” he said. “We’ve never received any complaints from our neighbors.”

The manager, who refused to give his name, claimed the smokeable material is “flavored tobacco — with no nicotine.” The city last year passed legislation banning the sale of flavored tobacco products — but tobacco used in pipes and hookahs was exempted.

Your House offers shisha in a tasty array of flavors, including mint, watermelon, strawberry, pineapple, and apple.

Officials admitted that they are unsure what action to take, but Joudeh, the Community Board 10 member, demanded a new Prohibition.

“[The city should] take out the hookahs in the cafes and lounges and [the bars can] have games people can play if they want to waste their time,” he said.

— with Ben Kochman