Attracted to the lure of sweet smelling tobacco smoked through an Arabic water pipe, or Al Fakher tobacco “hookah,” customers gather at Eros Café in Rutherford. Hookah lounges are not just popular with Middle Eastern clientele. Individuals from all backgrounds and age groups, especially younger people, are visiting establishments for drinks and one- or two-hour smoking sessions. Opponents say it sends a bad message to teens, who may be unaware of the health consequences.
And although customers were previously smoking the popular Middle Eastern tobacco product through a hookah indoors at an average of $15 an hour, municipalities are now enforcing the smoking ban and requiring the establishments to have an outdoor lounge.
“It’s something that’s prevalent in Middle Eastern culture, and it’s catching on in this country,” said Brian O’Keefe, Rutherford health official, about hookah’s popularity. “But under state statute, smoking is not allowed indoors in public places. Eros has outdoor seating in the front on the patio, sidewalk and rear area. As long as it’s open and there’s no ceiling or walls surrounding the area, it’s allowed. If you put a wall or ceiling up around it, the area is considered ‘indoors.’”
The indoor smoking ban forced Sultan Hookah at 305 Ridge Rd. in Lyndhurst to close in May. Lyndhurst Commissioner Brian Haggerty said that NJGASP, an anti-smoking group, had called different towns to find out about smoke-free businesses and compliance. The group estimates that 12 percent of high school students use hookahs and notes that water pipe smoke contains numerous toxicants known to cause lung cancer and other diseases similar to cigarette smoke.
“Unfortunately, [state law] put him out of business,” Haggerty said. “The owner is a good man. It was a cultural place, mostly where Middle Eastern people would go.”
The owner, who did not return calls, and owns a gyro place next door, will be required to construct a patio in order to re-open the hookah area. Haggerty, however, does not see it happening.
“There’s not much there to work with. You’d have to go to the back, but there’s apartments upstairs. Smoke rises, so that would be an issue,” Haggerty said.
At Eros Café, owner Dimitri Valvanis said he has offered hookahs for the past 12 years to a wide range of clientele, not just Middle Eastern.
“We were doing it indoors,” Valvanis said. “Then we had to comply with the [indoor] smoking ban, which we don’t agree with because hookah uses vapor, not smoke. If anything goes through water, it’s recreated as vapor. We still allow the smoking outdoors,” Valvanis said, motioning to the back patio.
However, the indoor smoking ban has hurt his business, he notes. “I’ve lost 75 percent of my business. The outdoor area only provides about 25 percent of my business,” Valvanis says.
Valvanis notes that patrons’ IDs are checked to make sure they’re 19 or older, as required by law, in order to consume any tobacco product. Even with the questions over safety, as it is a tobacco product, hookah’s popularity remains.
“I thought it was great the first time I tried it. The strawberry is a little sweet for me, but still good. I’m like orange, mint or apple more,” said Billy Darwiche, 23, of Totowa.
He noted that he has a few hookahs at home and purchases the tobacco from Hookah Paradise in Paterson. But he still goes out once or twice a month with friends to smoke at hookah lounges like Eros, where fruity tobacco is burnt using coal and becomes smoke, then passes through an ornate water vessel and is inhaled through a hose.
“You’re not supposed to inhale it,” adds his friend, Jessica Esteves, 22, of Newark, in between taking puffs of the sweet smelling tobacco. “It’s relaxing with a drink of water sometimes, to hydrate you because it can dry your throat. Some places use real fruit mixed in with tobacco; this is flavored tobacco,” Esteves said.
Esteves noted that Eros keeps hookah sanitary by giving each customer a new hookah mouthpiece.
Hookah smoking is covered under NJ Smoke Free Air Act, which dictates that no public establishments would allow indoor smoking after 2004.