SEATTLE – The Public Health Department of Seattle and King County is asking for a court injunction against two hookah bars. They say the businesses are violating the state law regarding smoking in public places.
Nebil Mohammed grew up in Ethiopia, and he says smoking hookah is very common there.
“My grandmother and mother do it,” says the owner of Medina Hookah Lounge in South Seattle. “This is part of our culture.”
He says a lot of the people that come to his lounge are East African or Middle Eastern, and they like the social aspect of smoking hookah.
“I don’t know anybody who would just light up a hookah at home by himself.”
But public health officials say that’s what should happen. They say lounges like Medina violate the Washington State Smoking in Public Places law passed in 2005.
“The law actually prohibits smoking in public places and places of employment,” says Scott Neal, the Tobacco Prevention program manager for Seattle and King County Public Health.
The department is now asking for a court injunction to force the Medina Hookah Lounge and the Night Owl in the University District to comply with the law.
“It is a last resort for us,” says Neal. “We’ve worked for quite a long time in notifying them of the law, educating about what they can and can’t do.”
But Mohammed says he is in compliance.
“The law clearly states no smoking in public places, and we’re not public, we’re private,” says Mohammed. “You see when you walk in the door, it says clearly, members only, private club.”
“They’re a private club much like Costco is a private club,” Neal counters. “That’s really not enough criteria to be a private establishment.”
Health officials say they’re not trying to put anyone out of business, but they are concerned that people don’t understand the risks of hookah. They say smoking hookah for 45 minutes is the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes.
“I think a lot of people who smoke hookah think it’s not tobacco use, or it’s not as dangerous as cigarettes,” says Neal.
Mohammed says he doesn’t market to minors, and he doesn’t allow anyone underage in his club. But he thinks adults should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to smoke or not.
“We’re not saying we’re safe and healthy. But there are a lot of things that are not safe and healthy,” says Mohammed.
Mohammed says he’s willing to work with the health department on further regulations, but he will fight this issue in court if he has to.
The health department is seeking injunctions against just two hookah lounges right now. But they say they are investigating all the ones that currently operate in the area, and may take action against those as well.