Multnomah County’s quest to ban flavored tobacco products could wipe out hookah lounges

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This fall, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners may ban flavored tobacco.

County health officials have a clear goal for the ban: to limit young people’s access to nicotine. After all, there are hundreds of great-sounding vape products available to inspire playground kids into a full-fledged nicotine addiction, including flavors like Gummy Bear, Tropical Slushy, Creme banana ice cream and rainbow Skittles.

But another result of a flavored tobacco ban would be the closure of all Portland hookah lounges.

Hookahs are water pipes for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco that became popular centuries ago in ancient Persia and India. Today, they are popular in the Middle East and North Africa and among Portland communities who hail from those places.

At Mr. Hookah on Southeast Stark Street at 183rd Avenue, customers can choose from about two dozen flavors of sticky, reddish hookah tobacco, also known as shisha. Owner Clovis Ain packs the shisha in a bowl the size of a hockey puck on an ornate 3-foot glass hookah with an attached hose. Finally, he uses tongs to place three hot coals made from coconut shells on top of the entire device to heat the shisha.

“You have to be 21 to be there, and if you buy anything, you have to sit and smoke it here,” Ain says. “I don’t sell stuff to hide in your backpack and smoke at school.”

There are just three hookah lounges in Portland and seven in all of Oregon, down from 10 before the pandemic. They are grandfathered under the state’s Indoor Air Quality Act to allow smoking indoors, so the hookah industry here cannot expand beyond these 10 licenses.

Mr. Hookah’s location in Tigard in Ain falls under the Washington County flavored tobacco ban that voters passed in May. That ban is on hold, however, scolded in court after several companies, including King’s Hookah Lounge, sued the county.

County commissioners will be notified of the flavored tobacco ban on September 27, after which the county will write an ordinance and hold public hearings. (Such a ban would not require a public vote.) So far, the commissioners have remained silent whether they are for or against an exemption for hookah lounges; none of the five were ready to comment.

The hookah lobby’s strategy in response is to seek an exemption for hookah lounges. It worked in Los Angeles, San Diego and Denver.

Lobbyists from the National Hookah Community Association, which includes shisha makers like Dubai-based Al Fakher, have already met with three of the five county commissioners over a possible exemption.

“Hookah is a cultural practice — especially for religions that don’t drink alcohol — for socializing and gathering,” says hookah lobbyist Chris Hudgins. “Frankly, this is something that is difficult for regulators and people in the United States to understand.”

Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines responds that hookahs expose users to a lot of nicotine and tobacco – and she opposes an exemption.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, users can inhale during a typical hour-long hookah session 100 to 200 times the amount of smoke they would inhale from a single cigarette. Hookah smokers can be at risk for some of the same diseases as cigarette smokers, including cancers of the mouth, lung, stomach, and esophagus, reduced lung function, and decreased fertility. , according to the CDC.

Still, the hookah isn’t Vines’ primary focus. The first of his two objectives for the ban is to limit the initiation of young people to the use of tobacco and nicotine. (Hookah is not a commonly used tobacco product among teens, studies show.) Second, Vines wants to ban menthol cigarettes, which are used disproportionately by communities of color who have been heavily targeted by the menthol-specific advertising.

“For all of the public health emergencies of the past three years — extreme heat, terrible air quality, and COVID — people with underlying health conditions are at higher risk,” Vines says. “It’s a meaningful way to actually treat the underlying conditions themselves.”

At Mr. Hookah’s Tigard location, Ain says his clientele is a “great mix” of African, Arab and American customers. At Gresham, it’s 90% African American and African, including guests from Ethiopia and Somalia. It prides itself on the “chic vibe” of its lounges, with uniformed waiters, chandeliers and a three-tiered fountain in the middle of the room.

Ain, 32, is from Damascus and came to the United States when he was 11 years old. He used to skip school to work at his parents’ restaurant and hookah bar in Los Angeles because he loved the job so much.

At his Stark Street lounge, which he opened in 2015, smoking a hookah costs $24 and lasts up to two hours. Often customers smoke the hookah in groups and circulate the hose, which costs $10 per person and comes with individual disposable mouthpieces for sanitary reasons.

Ain’s custom shisha mix for a beginner is cherry, ‘mighty freeze’ (mint and lemon) and ‘blue mist’ (blueberry). Ordinary shisha exists but it is rare; even hundreds of years ago, shisha was flavored with molasses and honey.

The irony of the flavored tobacco ban in Multnomah County just two years after Oregon voters passed Measure 110, decriminalizing personal possession of small amounts of hard drugs, is not lost on the public. ‘Ain. Mr. Hookah is next door to the county’s Stark Street Shelter and he collects used hypodermic needles from his parking lot “all day”.

“It surprises me,” he said. “Hookah doesn’t take over your brain. You can drive after smoking hookah. But methamphetamine? Heroin? That’s all good, but do we ban flavored tobacco?

Ain has no plan B for his career if the county closes Mr. Hookah. He has a wife and three young boys, ages 5, 2 and 1. He enjoys socializing with his clients in Arabic, French and English.

“That’s the line of my work: hookah,” he says. “If I’m not around people every day who do this, I’m not me.”

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Rozella J. Cook