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Uptown Councilman Introduces Law to Ban Hookah Sales at Bars, Grocers

By Lindsay Armstrong | January 9, 2015 2:00pm | Updated on January 12, 2015 8:59am
 A woman smokes a hookah at La Marina. Between May and August 2014, the venue made more than $160,000 in hookah sales.
A woman smokes a hookah at La Marina. Between May and August 2014, the venue made more than $160,000 in hookah sales.
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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — New York City’s hookah trend may soon go up in smoke.

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez introduced legislation Wednesday to ban the sale of hookah-related products including shisha and water pipes at city businesses that make less than half of their revenue from tobacco sales.

Some businesses, such as tobacco retail shops and cigar bars that don’t serve food or alcohol, would be exempt from the law.

Rodriguez was particularly concerned by the common misconception that smoking shisha, the substance used in a hookah pipe, is a healthy alternative to smoking cigarettes. Shisha is a blend of molasses, herbs and flavoring that may or may not contain tobacco.

"Although many might believe that hookah is less dangerous than smoking cigarettes, studies prove the exact opposite,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “In fact, according to a study by the World Health Organization a typical hookah session can be equivalent to 100-200 cigarettes." 

Although the city passed a law in 2002 that prohibits smoking tobacco in restaurants and bars, business owners have circumvented that rule by filling their hookahs with tobacco-free shisha.

However, a recent investigation by the city’s Health Department found that some businesses are serving shisha that contains tobacco, despite their claims to the contrary. Of the 13 bars that the Health Department secretly inspected on Nov. 14, 2014, all were found to be selling shisha that contained tobacco.

Even when tobacco-free shisha is used in a water pipe, smoking hookah still poses health risks to the user.

Most hookah pipes work by burning charcoal, which releases toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide as it burns. In a typical 1-hour smoking session, a hookah user can be exposed to more carbon monoxide than someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association.

“Hookah smoking can be as dangerous as cigarettes,” said Patrick Kwan, director of NYC Smoke-Free at Public Health Solutions, in a statement. “While there have been declines in teen cigarette use, other forms of tobacco, such as hookah, are gaining in popularity among youth, and these can lead to a lifetime of addiction.”

Hookah has become increasingly popular in Rodriguez’s Uptown district with clubs, restaurants and even some barbershops offering customers the option to smoke. Inwood hotspot La Marina brought in $160,317 between May and August 2014 on hookah sales alone.

In a statement on the law, Rodriguez called hookah smoking a “silent epidemic” among youth. He noted that 18 percent of high school seniors have smoked hookah, according to a nationwide survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“We must protect our young people from a substance they naively believe to be less harmful than cigarettes,” Rodriguez said in a Facebook message to constituents.