Smoked out! Ridge lawmaker wants to keep kids from playing hookah

Smoked out! Ridge lawmaker wants to keep kids from playing hookah
Community Newspaper Group / Natalie O’Neill

A Bay Ridge lawmaker is pushing health legislation that would crack down on the neighborhood’s 20-plus hookah bars and cafes.

The act, which was drafted last week by Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (D–Bay Ridge), prohibits hookah hangouts from selling “shisha” to teenagers — even though owners swear that they never sell the flavored herbs to teens anyway.

Opponents of hookah shops say that the Arab-influenced cafes create a health hazard for teenagers, who are legally allowed to smoke the fruit-flavored stuff as long as it doesn’t contain tobacco.

“It’s important to understand that underage kids are not capable of evaluating the health risks that products like these present,” Brook-Krasny said.

That outlook was echoed by civic leaders, who said shisha is as trendy as it is risky.

“It’s a big fad; large groups of kids are always smoking on Fridays,” said Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10. “But it should be restricted.”

Shisha is a mix of dried fruits, molasses, honey — and sometimes tobacco, although it’s often purchased without a label, making its contents unclear. In large quantities, it can cause lung cancer, with or without tobacco, studies show.

After an asthmatic Bay Ridge 14-year-old smoked shisha and passed out last year, parents began complaining to civic leaders about hookah bars, saying newbie smokers prefer the Middle Eastern custom because inhaling from a water-filtered pipe allows for a smoother toke.

City law already forbids smoking tobacco in restaurants and bars, but hookah establishments are able to bend the rules because detecting the difference between herbs and tobacco requires expensive testing that the Health Department says it can’t afford.

Naturally, Bay Ridge hookah bar owners say they haven’t been selling tobacco to minors — or shisha, for that matter.

“We don’t serve hookah to kids under 18 — only coffee,” said Ahmed Rizika, owner Al Basha Coffee, a teenage meet-up point on Bay Ridge Avenue near Third Avenue.

Other owners swore they turn teens away because they don’t want to risk making kids sick.

“We’re a family place; I wouldn’t take that risk,” said Marwan Dagher, owner of Le Sajj, a Lebanese restaurant on Fifth Avenue. “My food is number one.”

Existing state law prohibits the sale of tobacco products, herbal cigarettes and rolling papers to kids under the age of 18. The new bill specifically adds “shisha and smoking paraphernalia” such as “water pipes, hookah and vaporizer” to the list of no-nos.

Here's what our former intern, Ben Kochman, looked like when he was on the hookah beat.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini