Baltimore County explores hookah lounge regulations as popularity spikes

TOWSON, Md. - Mark Henderson said spending a few hours enjoying an occasional puff off a hookah inside the Tobacco Center Café on Joppa Road is a great way to decompress and unwind.

But, while many of the growing number of hookah lounges in the Baltimore area offer a similar laid back atmosphere, some have voiced concerns over loud noise and rowdy behavior coming out of other such lounges in recent months.

Those concerns are part of the reason why the Baltimore County Council voted unanimously Monday to direct the county Planning Board to come up with ways to regulate hookah lounges within the jurisdiction.

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County Councilman David Marks said he has heard some complaints recently and believes the county needs to take a closer look at the growing industry, which he added now includes about 30 in the state.

Marks added there are no specific regulations for hookah lounges in the state, and many allow patrons to bring in their own alcohol. That, he said, has led to issues involving patrons pouring into the streets of Towson as late as 4 a.m.

"We want to explore options available to us regarding regulating hookah lounges much like we would any other business in the county," Marks said. "We've had some complaints from residents in the Towson area in my district, so I felt like we needed more guidance on the subject."

Hookah lounge owners, along with health experts and elected officials, say the lounges have become more popular with college-age students in recent years. Patrons enjoy their choice of shisha, or flavored tobacco, which are smoked from a hookah, also known as a communal water pipe.

Maurice Sawalhi, whose family owns Tobacco Center Café, said there is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to hookah lounges. He said the negative practices of a few businesses can shine a poor light on everyone else's business.

"When people come to our business, they do so to relax and congregate with friends," said King, who added that his family's business is never opened past 2 a.m. "But, when you have clubs that just happen to have hookah and let people drink too much, that's when trouble can happen."

Lawmakers in Maryland have been looking into how to approach hookah bars in the state since at least 2007; the year when the Clean Indoor Air Act was passed. Sen. Bobby Zirkin said he had concerns over how hookah lounges would be impacted by the legislation, which outlawed smoking from most businesses.

Zirkin said the attorney general's office told him that such businesses would be exempt because selling tobacco was its primary form of generating income. The Baltimore County Democrat added that while he understands why the county is examining the issue, he hopes the council does its due diligence.

"You can't regulate it any differently than you would a cigar shop or any other legal business in the state," Zirkin said. "Legally, it needs to be treated the same and can't be looked at differently because you don't like the business."

Health experts are also keeping a close eye on the spike in popularity of hookah lounges. Dawn Berkowitz, director of the state's Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control, said 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.

"There are people who question ‘how bad could it be' because the smoke is cooler than from cigarettes," Berkowitz said. "However, there really is no difference. It's likely just as addictive and the second-hand smoke is just as bad."

Dr. John Cmar, assistant director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Sinai Hospital, agrees.

Cmar added that he is also concerned over the number of youths trying hookah, citing studies that show 15 to 20 percent of high school students and up to 40 percent of college students have tried hookah at least once. In addition, Cmar also does not like the communal aspect of hookah where many share pipes without properly cleaning them or changing the mouth piece.

"While there is not a lot of specific research out there targeted toward hookah, there's no reason to believe they are really any different than smoking cigarettes," Cmar said. "Smoking is smoking."

Henderson, the Tobacco Center Café customer, said he is aware of the council's issues and those in the health community. He just hopes there isn't a great government overreaction because of a few isolated incidents.

"Most people who enjoy hookah are just looking to relax," he said. "They're not out to get drunk or be loud. That's not what the experience is supposed to be about."

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