LA's Hookah Lovers Are Worried The Proposed Vaping Law Would Wipe Out Their Lounges

(Stock photo by Awesome Sauce Creative on Unsplash)

A bill in Sacramento that would ban flavored vape products would also outlaw the sale of flavored tobacco used in hookah lounges.

That worries people like Arbi Sardari, as he takes a drag of peach- and mint-flavored tobacco at The Atmosphere, the hookah lounge he owns in Glendale.

For Sardari, smoking a hookah brings back memories of family.

"My grand grandpa was doing hookah," Sardari said. "And I was the kid that he was always saying, 'Hey, go put some charcoal on for me.'"

For many Middle Eastern families in California, smoking flavored tobacco with a hookah pipe is a communal affair, both at lounges like Sardari's and at home.

Sardari said he slept in his car for weeks to save up enough money to start his business. Now it's the proposed state law that's keeping him up at night.

"Because you think, wow, I'm doing all this and tomorrow it's gone?" he said, adding that he has 14 employees.

Customer Asbjorn Kjaer said he'd be bummed if he couldn't enjoy smoking a hookah with a few friends on a sunny afternoon.

"The whole thing where they're trying to outlaw all sorts of flavored tobacco seems to be mainly an overreaction to a serious problem with teen smoking, teen vaping," Kjaer said.

Hookah advocates will often argue that hookah pipes are not what contributes to teen smoking, as they take a considerable amount of time to get going and are not easily concealable.

Backers of the bill — SB 793 — say it's "aimed at halting the alarming resurgence of nicotine consumption among youth," according to a press release announcing the measure from co-sponsor State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo).

The bill would ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products with no exceptions. It has the backing of 30 lawmakers and is supported by the American Cancer Society and several other health advocacy groups.

"Anything less than ridding store shelves of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol, hookah, cigars, cigarillos and chewing tobacco, diminishes the health and safety of California kids who will find a way to access flavored tobacco anywhere retailers are able to sell these alluring products," Jim Knox, managing director for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network in California, said in a statement announcing SB 793.

There's no argument that hookah smoking can be harmful to your health. "hookah smoking has many of the same health risks as cigarette smoking," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns on its website. The agency says hookah smokers may be at risk for oral cancer, lung cancer and other diseases.

Rima Khoury, an attorney with the San Diego-based hookah tobacco and gear company Fumari, is actively lobbying to make sure the L.A. City Council has a hookah exemption carved out in its proposed flavored tobacco ban.

She said she wouldn't want her kids smoking but argues that there's no teen hookah epidemic and that efforts to combat youth vaping shouldn't take out a centuries-old cultural practice.

"We don't want hookah to become collateral damage," Khoury said.