The Right to Hookah?

March 23, 2009 2:04 PM by ryanc
Ryan Crawford, Quit Coach Supervisor, Service Delivery:


The state of Virginia is following suit with many other states and is expected to enact a smoking ban. This ban, as with other states’ precedents, would restrict tobacco use in public places and businesses.

According to a recent article, small tobacco-focused Virginia businesses are concerned that the ban will threaten their livelihood. In addition, the controversial law is under political scrutiny. Some argue that the ban would infringe upon the legal rights of hookah bars throughout the state.

Their argument is worth a listen.

Firstly, hookah—what is it? A hookah is an ornate, water-filled pipe used to smoke flavored tobacco. (Think the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.) Smoking hookah is a popular Middle-Eastern, Indian, Turkish, and Mediterranean custom, one in which my Italian-American family partook. Before I quit, my friends and I would use hookah and hookah bars as a cultural way to socialize. Plus, when one is a minor and can’t get into 21+ bars or lounges, a legally underage nightlife with music and young people has its charms.

But hookah’s allure is much like its thick smoke: intoxicating, and poisonous. According to, “a typical one-hour session of hookah smoking exposes the user to 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette,” each drag full of carbon monoxide, heavy metals, and carcinogens.

Additionally, “[hookah] smoking also delivers significant levels of nicotine — the addictive substance in tobacco,” meaning that it’s not only culturally and socially enticing—it’s also very physically addictive.

Does every person who enters a hookah bar know these exact facts? No. Does every person who enters a hookah bar know that there are health risks involved? Probably.

If we created a space in which people enter and know there is a health risk involved, should we make that space illegal? The government ensures that it is illegal to enter a restricted building in which there is known asbestos. What makes a hookah bar different?

It’s the power of choice. We can’t see asbestos particles with the naked eye—we likely don’t know a building is contaminated until someone raises a red flag for it. But we can see a hookah pipe, and what’s billowing out of it.

And the employees? A hookah bar in Bellingham, WA has remained legally open because of its logistics. The owners of the bar manage the enclosed lounge portion in which patrons smoke. In a separate wing of the building, the employees of the bar sell flavored tobacco in a retail setting, smoke free.

Washington State’s smoking ban is practical: no non-smoking vs. smoking sections in public places. All indoor establishments will be non-smoking unless they have a permit to be solely otherwise. With its whole purpose being to provide flavored tobacco and to serve as a venue in which to smoke it, a hookah bar can remain in business for those who want to smoke hookah or are okay with breathing its secondhand smoke.

It’s dangerous. It’s addictive. But it’s a choice of the 18+ consumer to enter a hookah lounge, whether they choose to smoke or simply observe.

You’re not off that easy, hookah bars. Nicotine is highly addictive and tobacco is deadly. Just as any pack of cigarettes is required to inform its consumer of its dangers with a written warning, so too should each purchase of hookah tobacco. Likewise, a warning should be clearly posted at the entrance of every tobacco-affirmative business stating the risks of smoking the product.

We all have the legal right to a choice. But we also have the moral right to an informed decision.


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