TOWSON - Shootings in Randallstown and Baltimore City, alcohol-induced fights in Towson and various late-night disturbances throughout the area have Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz concerned over hookah and vapor lounges.
These concerns prompted Kamenetz to submit legislation to the county council that will limit the hours of operation of hookah and vapor Lounges in Baltimore County. The legislation would require such establishments to close by 8 p.m. on weeknights and by 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
“These establishments have gotten out of control,” Kamenetz said. “Recent late night incidents at hookah lounges include arrests made for felony drug possession, liquor law violations, assaults and disorderly conduct. Most of these businesses are not just hookah lounges, they are after-hour party clubs.”
Concerns over hookah and vapor lounge regulations have been building in Baltimore County for months. In October, the County Council voted unanimously to develop reccomendations to regulate the approximately 30 such businesses in the county.
Among incidents of concern is a Feb. 2 shooting at the Fire and Ice Hookah Lounge in Randallstown . The shooting on the 3500 block of Brenbrook Drive injured three people, who were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.
In August 2013, a 26-year-old Baltimore man was charged with attempted murder in connection with a double shooting at the 800 block of Guilford Ave. In that case, city police allege Antoine Jordan shot two security guards at the Casablanca Hookah Bar after they denied entrance to the club to a group of men who could not provide identification.
Baltimore County police Chief Jim Johnson said since Jan. 1, his department has responded to 39 calls involving hookah and vapor lounges in communities ranging from Towson and Woodlawn to Wilkins and Randallstown. This has led to 37 arrests, Johnson said.
"We are seeing a disturbing trend among many of these businesses," Johnson said. "I support the county executive in this effort and with this legislation. If left unattended, I only see the number of calls to police increasing. We need to be proactive in our approach to this issue."
Kamenetz said the legislation is needed because there are currently no regulations regarding the lounges. Across the state, Kamenetz said, there are no specific laws regarding hookah lounges on issues ranging from hours of operation to alcohol consumption.
While many such businesses do not sell alcohol, they allow patrons to bring in their own beverages and are often open past the 2 a.m. closing time set for traditional bars. This, Kamanetz said, has led to incidents occurring as late at 4 a.m.
“We’re seeing problems at just about all of the lounges,” Kamenetz said. “We need to step in and do something now before it gets more out of control…This is not the image we are trying to promote in Towson or anywhere in Baltimore County.”
Also of concern, Kamenetz said, are the health risks associated with hookah smoking, which is becoming increasingly popular with college-age adults. Patrons enjoy their choice of shisha, or flavored tobacco, which are smoked from a hookah, also known as a communal water pipe.
Dawn Berkowitz, director of the state's Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control, told ABC2 News recently that many people who use hookah have the false belief that it is not as bad as smoking cigarettes, because the tobacco is filtered through water first.
She said a 45-60 minute hookah session is the equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes.
Then, Kamenetz said, there are e-cigarettes available at vapor lounges that are not currently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and although they do not contain tobacco, most of these devices contain varying levels of nicotine and other dangerous chemicals.
“These e-cigarettes are unregulated and there is no way for people to know what they are inhaling and how dangerous they really are,” Kamenetz said.
Kathleen Hoke, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said laws prohibiting smoking at restaurants and other public establishments have led to a proliferation of hookah and vapor lounges.
"We have two issues at work here," Hoke said. "The first is the increase in nuisance crimes like fights, public urination and underage drinking. The second is the public health aspect in which people don't understand the risk associated with such smoking, especially e-cigarettes which are so new to the market.
"Another concern is that people are leaving bars at 2 a.m. after closing time and showing up drunk and then bringing even more alcohol into the lounges with them. This leads to a host of other problems."
Sawalhi, whose family owns Tobacco Center Café on Joppa Road in Parkville, said there is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to hookah lounges. He believes a few poorly-ran businesses are ruining it for everyone.
“I’ve had customers come to me and tell me what is happening at some of the other lounges,” Sawalhi said. “These businesses do bad things and we have to pay for it. We don’t run a wild business. Our customers come here to mellow out, not create problems. I just hope the county looks at the bigger picture.”
The bill will be introduced at the council meeting scheduled for April 7, and the council will hold a work session to discuss the legislation on April 29. It will be on the council agenda for final passage on May 5.