Hookah Tradition Clashes With City No-Smoking Law
Most of the hookah bars in New York City can be found along Steinway Street. In these cafes that make up Astoria’s Little Egypt, the 400-year old practice of water-pipe smoking, common in Middle Eastern Arab culture, conflicts with modern law. “There’s smoke in my home every single night. It smells like an ashtray,” Laurie Lunenburg, of 25-57 38th St., whose apartment is directly behind the Layali Beirut cafe on Steinway Street, said.
Lunenburg attended the Community Board 1 meeting held at Astoria World Manor on September 20 to claim that hookah smoke is rising up from under an outdoor tent erected in back of the cafe.
By most accounts, the city’s tough anti-smoking legislation has been very effective. Although some maintain the ban hurts beer and liquor sales, other restaurateurs point to an increase in diners because of smoke-free environments. Polls taken one year after the law was enacted on April 1, 2003 showed more than half the city supports the ban, which prohibits smoking in almost all public places, including bars and restaurants.
There are, however, exemptions to the law, officially known as the Clean Indoor Air Act. Under the law, smoking is allowed in bars or cafes if it can be shown that the establishment draws at least 10 percent of its revenue from the sale of tobacco. But the exemption is also linked only to places that sell alcohol as well.
“Hookah establishments may apply for an exemption as a tobacco bar—which by definition is an establishment where the sale of food is incidental, at least 40 percent of gross receipts are from the sale of alcohol, and at least 10 percent of gross receipts are from the sale of tobacco products or the rental of humidors,” Elliott S. Marcus, an assistant commissioner for the Department of Health, said in a March 9, 2004 New York Times report.
Hookah bars, or shisha cafes, as they are also known for the fruit-flavored tobacco called shisha that is smoked through the hookahs or waterpipes, charge about $4 for a smoke that can last an hour. While owners say they do earn more than half of their revenue from tobacco, they would not serve alcohol because most of their customers are Muslims and do not drink, according to the Times article.
Lunenburg said the Department of Health confirmed the presence of smoke at her apartment, but the Department of Environmental Protection did not. She also notified the 114th Police Precinct, which indicated, she said, that the cafe had proper permits. She claimed they were for food and drink only, not for smoking.
“We need to stop this smoke. It’s just not right,” Lunenburg told the board. Queens has a well-founded reputation for diversity. Second only to Florida’s Dade County, where the mostly Latin American foreign-born population in Miami stands at 59.5 percent, the foreign-born population in Queens is 47 percent. Moreover, according to the U.S. Census, the number of New Yorkers of Arab descent increased by almost 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. In Astoria along Steinway Street, Middle Eastern grocery stores, restaurants and cafes mark this new wave of immigration.
“New York has many different cultures, and smoking shisha is part of our culture,” a manager of a hookah bar on Steinway Street said in the Times report.
Community Board 1 District Manager George Delis said the board would follow up on the complaints and Chairperson Vinicio Donato asked that a letter be sent to the city seeking a legal opinion.
In other business, at the recommendation of the Public Safety Committee, guidelines for street dual naming were adopted by the board.
The new guidelines state that the person nominated must have died in the line of duty, e.g., a police officer, firefighter or EMT, involving heroic circumstances or have held political office or have volunteered a good portion of his or her time to the betterment of the community and must be nominated by local community group(s), local elected official(s), house(s) of worship or merchant group(s).
All nominations must be accompanied by an explanatory letter detailing the following: circumstances, history, reachable references and contact information of nominator(s). In addition to the nominating group, three separate local community-based organizations must concur and sign the nomination.
The board also approved an application to extend a term of variance for an additional 10 years for an auto service station at 31-70 31st Street.