Stand by Your Ban

No smoking ban leniency for Virginia hookah spots

VIENNA, Va. -- Maher Elmasri didn't put much stock in talk that Virginia -- a state with historic ties to tobacco -- would ban smoking in bars and restaurants.

Now, though, Elmasri worries his livelihood could be wiped out. His restaurant, Lebnan Zaman, owes its popularity to the hookah, a water pipe popular in Middle Eastern culture. Virginia's newly passed smoking ban -- which awaits the governor's signature -- unlike some others across the country, makes no exception for hookahs.

The ban kills an old cultural tradition, Elmasri said.

"It's not just about the smoking. It's about people getting together, getting a sense of back home," said Elmasri, a Palestinian immigrant.

Elmasri's customers -- a mix of young and old and several nationalities -- said the hookah lounge provides a social setting that is difficult to replicate. Most nights his restaurant is packed with customers playing cards, drinking coffee and eating traditional Middle Eastern food like kibbeh as they puff leisurely on their pipes.

The hookah is a tall, ornate pipe. Smoke is drawn through water before being sucked through a long tube and mouthpiece. Customers pay $10 to $12 to rent the pipe and purchase sweetened tobacco that comes in dozens of flavors.

"We don't drink. And not everybody drinks coffee or wants to hang out in coffee bars," said 25-year-old Omar Kalifa, of Falls Church, sitting at a table with a half-dozen friends he met at Elmasri's place. "You know that old show 'Cheers'? This is a place where everybody knows your name. It's where you meet friends. It's where you make friends."

Tarik Mousa, 27, of Annandale, couldn't believe the Virginia Legislature passed a smoking ban that would take effect in December. The governor says he will sign it into law. Among the hundreds of hookah bars across the country, at least a dozen operate in northern Virginia.

"I didn't even know they were trying to pass a law," Mousa said as he smoked a less traditional flavor -- peaches and cream. Mousa thought Virginia was tobacco friendly, especially compared to neighboring Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Elmasri assumed the same.

He heard news last month that Gov. Tim Kaine was going to try for the third consecutive year to pass a ban but was so unconcerned that he opened a second hookah lounge in nearby Fairfax just a few weeks ago. Even if smoking in bars and restaurants were outlawed, he figured lawmakers would make an exception for cigar bars and hookah lounges, or perhaps include a grandfather clause for existing businesses.

When the District of Columbia, for instance, passed its ban in 2006, cigar bars and hookah lounges were exempted.

But Virginia's Legislature made no such exception. Kaine's spokesman, Gordon Hickey, said it was considered but ultimately rejected.

"This is a bill that is intended to protect the health of the workers, and you have to be consistent" in applying the law, Hickey said.

While hookah smoking is particularly popular in segments of northern Virginia's sizable Arab-American community, it is not limited to Middle eastern restaurants. In Arlington County, Latin American restaurant Guarapo has offered hookah smoking for several years and it has proved immensely popular, said restaurant spokeswoman Jessica Gibson.

"It's something that differentiates us from the other places," Gibson said.

The Virginia law makes some exceptions to allow smoking sections in separately ventilated rooms. Kaine favored a total ban.

Elmasri, who recently spent more than $10,000 to put new air filters in his restaurant, said he can't envision a way to reconfigure his small shop into one that will comply with state law.

"For us this is a life-or-death question," said Elmasri, who estimated that 70 percent of his customers smoke, and that they generate more than 80 percent of the revenue.

In his monthly radio show Tuesday on Washington's WTOP radio, Kaine was unequivocal when asked about the ban that he will sign into law soon.

When a caller voiced concerns that the law might not be enforced, Kaine said the smoking ban is going to go into effect.

After it's signed, the ban takes effect Dec. 1.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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