In Bay Ridge, change, but not hookah smoke, is in the air

At night, on certain street corners in Bay Ridge, the air grows redolent with a sweet, fruity smell.

Shisha, the herbal blend ingested through a water pipe, or hookah, has grown increasingly popular across New York. In this south Brooklyn neighborhood, where thousands of immigrants from the Middle East have made their home since the 1990s, hookah bars have proliferated, standing alongside halal markets and shawarma shops, greengrocers and Greek bakeries, Irish bars and pizza places.

That sweet scent may soon disappear from the streets. After years of debate, a bill which will regulate shisha in ways similar to tobacco, passed the New York City Council on September 27, by a vote of 37-5.

“This bill will make New York City healthier,” said Jonathan Shabshaikes, legislative director for Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who represents Bay Ridge and sponsored the measure.

The legislation amends the Smoke Free Air Act of 2002, which banned indoor smoking of cigarettes and cigars, to include non-tobacco shisha also. Businesses that earn more than half of their revenue through the sale of shisha must now comply with formal licensing requirements and revised fire safety, ventilation and sterilization regulations.

Establishments found to mix tobacco into their shisha or serve people under 21 will lose their permits. New hookah bars will not be allowed to open, and existing bars will not be allowed to move or expand.

Ongoing research out of the NYU School of Medicine compares one hookah session to smoking five packs of cigarettes and finds that minors increasingly smoke hookah, even as cigarette use declines.

Some local residents were concerned that an anti-hookah could harm Arab-owned small businesses.

One manager at a hookah bar and restaurant, who requested anonymity because his employer was not present, expressed anger that his industry was being singled out.

“You’re gonna come target us?” he said. “Why not target the places that actually do bad?”

But many leaders within the local Arab community came out in support of the bill.

“[W]e don’t see any act of discrimination against the Arab or Middle Eastern Culture,” reads public testimony submitted by Hisham Morgan, now the executive director of the Muslim American Society of New York, in February, 2016. “It is only a matter of severe health issues caused by hookah smoke inhalation to both Middle Eastern and other backgrounds.”

The proposal is currently on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s desk. If he signs it, most rules will go into effect after 180 days. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will be tasked with educating businesses about the new requirements.

That may prove challenging. When asked for their reactions to the bill’s passage, a half-dozen hookah bar managers had never heard of it. One woman learned about it only because three reporters had approached her in one day.

Joe Seikali was an exception. The owner of Chill Bar and Hookah Lounge, 7810 Fifth Avenue, said he knew that changes might be coming but wasn’t concerned. He already had the right ventilation system, he said, and will follow whatever new regulations come his way.

Over the summer, just a few months before the new measure passed, Seikali celebrated his bar’s third anniversary with a party. In social media posts promoting the event, he sounded hopeful about the future.

“Three years down, forever to go!” he wrote.

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