One of the issues that was overlooked in Virginia’s smoking ban debate was its impact on hookah bars. The AP covered their plight yesterday:
[Maher] 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.
Elmasri says the ban kills an old cultural tradition.
“It’s not just about the smoking. It’s about people getting together, getting a sense of back home,” said Elmasri, a Palestinian immigrant. [...]
The Virginia law makes some exceptions to allow smoking sections in separately ventilated rooms. 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.
Middle Eastern hookah bars are one of Northern Virginia’s hidden treasures, a unique cultural experience thriving in the suburbs. The small lounges feature delicious mint tea, water pipes with flavored tobacco, music, and special lighting at night. Given how few of them exist, it’s unlikely anyone working in them objects too strenuously to the smoky environment. Yet because Governor Tim Kaine thinks he knows better than the employees what’s best for them, they will soon no longer have a choice in the matter — or likely any job at all.
Reading about people like Maher Elmasri is what so absolutely disgusts me about politicians like Tim Kaine and his publicity-seeking abettors like the owners of the Liberty Tavern. Their zeal to wipe out smoking in public places knows no respect for the rights of small business owners or a smoking culture that comes to a different balance between pleasure and health.
Given their small size, it will be difficult for many of Virginia’s hookah bars to survive the ban. If you’re in the area, go check them out while you have the chance.
Update 2/26/09: South Bend 7 has a remembrance of fun times with hookahs that’s worth reading.