By Jacob Grier of Portland, Oregon. Jacob describes himself as a "former DC think tanker turned freelance writer and bartender." Read his blog at JacobGrier.com.
In 2009, Oregon's smoking ban eliminated smoking in nearly all Oregon businesses. The only exceptions are for cigar bars and smoke shops. The former must meet strict requirements, including possession of a liquor license and proof of tobacco sales from 2006; thus opening a new cigar bar in Oregon is practically impossible.
Entrepreneurs can, however, open new smoke shops, and in the wake of the smoking ban many of them have. They often cater to smokers who no longer have anywhere else to light up indoors. Smoke shops can't serve alcohol, but they can offer comfortable seating, non-alcoholic beverages, and other amenities. Some of them are as much social gathering spaces as they are retail shops.
For now, anyway. A bill currently in the legislature would put many of them out of business with the stroke of a pen. House Bill 2726 would drastically amend the rules for smoke shops, making the lounge aspect of these businesses illegal. The bill would require smoke shops to generate 75% of gross revenue from sales of tobacco or smoking implements intended for off-premise consumption, would forbid shops to sell, offer, or allow the consumption of food and drink of any kind, would allow a maximum seating capacity of four people, and would permit smoking only for the purpose of sampling to make retail purchase decisions.
Writing in the Oregonian, Representative Carolyn Tomei, who sponsors the bill, misleadingly pitches it as specifically targeting hookah lounges. Yet the language of the bill makes no distinction between hookah lounges and other smoke shops, so it would equally affect the many cigar shops that offer seating for their customers.
Even if the bill did only target hookah lounges, it would be unfair to shut them down. It's hard to imagine any health justification for allowing cigar bars (with smoke and liquor!) while banning hookah lounges; the proposal reeks of class bias against a hobby associated with the young and Middle Eastern.
Tomei and others are hyping hookah lounges as dens of iniquity that entice teens into smoking. '[W]hen you map the areas with the largest increase in teenage hookah use, they overlay exactly with the location of hookah lounges,' Tomei writes in the Oregonian. 'Exactly' is a bit of a stretch here. The study she refers to actually tracks use on a county-by-county basis, so the geographic areas included are fairly broad. Counties with hookah lounges are the same counties that have large cities or college campuses in them. While the presence of hookah lounges arguably has some impact on teen smoking, all one can really say about the study is that it found the unsurprising fact that both hookah lounges and teen hookah use are more popular in urban or suburban areas than in rural.
Hookah smoking is appealing to young people, and this is something some lounges use to their advantage in their marketing and atmosphere. But this doesn't mean they're targeting underage smokers; an ad designed to appeal to legal 18-year-olds will likely be attractive to younger teens as well. But the remedy to underage sales at hookah lounges is not to kill businesses but to strictly enforce the law. Underage drinking is a problem too, but we don't ban all bars on account of it. The state cracks down on repeat offenders while allowing the rest to continue responsibly serving consenting adults. The rules for tobacco should be no different.
Whatever the merits of the 2009 smoking ban, it has at least segregated smoking into a small number of businesses that non-smokers need never enter. The smoke shops and hookah lounges that have opened and invested in their businesses since then have done so in full compliance with the law. The legislature should not wipe out these investments with further creep of the state's already comprehensive regulations.