Local pol looks to regulate non-tobacco hookah smoke

February 25, 2016 Meaghan McGoldrick
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New legislation introduced this morning would address a major “elephant in the room” when it comes to hookah, says one local pol.

Councilmember Vincent Gentile on Thursday, February 25 debuted a bill that, if signed into law, would include non-tobacco herbal shisha smoke under the guidelines of the landmark 2002 Smoke Free Air Act and fiercely regulate those hookah joints still allowed to operate.

“What we are faced with today is a long overdue look at an unregulated loophole in the SFAA: the smoke from non-tobacco shisha,” said Gentile at a public hearing of the City Council’s Committee for Public Health, citing non-tobacco hookah smoke’s effect on air quality and health as being just as bad, if not worse, than cigarette smoke. “Current law does not include non-tobacco shisha as part of the indoor ban, even though there is every reason it should.”

The pol’s legislation, which already has 15 sponsors in the City Council, would allow existing hookah bar establishments that earn 50 percent or more of their total revenue from hookah sales the opportunity to be grandfathered in – similar to cigar bars upon the passage of the SFAA – so long as they register with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

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Those qualified hookah bars would, in turn, have to adhere to strict requirements to obtain and maintain registration, such as having no past due violations of the SFAA on record and not committing specific types of violations, such as the use of tobacco products alongside the shisha.

Failure to comply with these rules, Gentile said, would result in immediate revocation of the registration.

“There’s a false sense of security when smoking hookah,” said Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of the nonprofit Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy. “The flavors mask the harshness, the water actually doesn’t remove the toxins, and very high levels of carbon monoxide are created even if no tobacco is being smoked.”

Roberta Ferrence, senior scientific advisor at the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, agreed.

“Except for nicotine content, there is no difference in the toxicity of tobacco and herbal hookah smoke,” said Ferrence. “In Toronto, we found that all venues tested showed some air nicotine, and many showed high levels, contrary to the provincial smoke free law.”

Toronto passed legislation regulating the use of hookah this past November after researchers found that the inhalation of non-tobacco herbal shisha subjects people – both firsthand and secondhand – to alarmingly high levels of toxins and carcinogens.

“I hope we have cleared the smoke about hookah smoking and effectively addressed the health risks it presents to an unsuspecting public, especially our youth,” said Gentile.

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