LAWRENCE — The owners of a local bar and restaurant say the city's strict enforcement of its anti-smoking laws is slowly but surely putting them — and possibly other, similar establishments — out of business.
Brothers Jonas and Angel Marine, who own the Mir Tapas Lounge at 102 Essex St., lost their liquor license for 30 days this summer after fire inspectors raided their nightclub and found people using hookahs — large water pipes designed to smoke flavored tobacco.
Not only do hookahs violate the city's restaurant smoking ban, but they are also deemed a safety hazard because they burn charcoal, city attorney Tim Houten said.
Unless adequately ventilated, a bar or restaurant could trap carbon monoxide, he explained. Plus, the charcoal gets very hot and could ignite the surrounding furniture, walls or decorations if it were to spill or the hookah was knocked over.
The Marines' business is just one local establishment that has been cited for the use of hookahs as the city clamps down on the illegal practice. More and more patrons are using hookahs, which are provided by the bar or lounge for a fee. In turn, more and more businesses are offering the product.
Business owners say the strict enforcement of Lawrence's no-smoking ordinance is a hardship, especially in light of their competition in Methuen, Boston and New Hampshire, where hookahs are allowed with certain restrictions and rules.
The only recourse for Lawrence business owners whose liquor licenses are suspended for hookah violations is to appeal to the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which typically schedules hearings well after the suspensions are over. The other route is to go to Superior Court to seek a delay of the liquor license suspension pending the ABCC hearing.
The Marines appealed the Licensing Board's ruling to the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission but can't get a hearing until Aug. 8, which is well after the suspension expires in a week or so.
Last Monday the brothers went before the Licensing Board in an effort to halt the suspension until their appeal can be heard. But they withdrew that request as they mull their options, including possibly going to Superior Court, said Arthur Broadhurst, their attorney.
The Attika Club at 1 Mill St., which lost its liquor license for 45 days for the same offense, filed a claim in Superior Court seeking a stay of the suspension pending their ABCC hearing Aug. 8, with the caveat that they hire a fire marshal to be on the lookout for hookahs, according to Leonidas Chakalos, the attorney for Attika owner Yoel Herrera.
The judge approved of the agreement and the bar remains open, Chakalos said. He said his client is challenging the "severity" of the punishment rather than the facts of the case against them.
And it's not just Mir and Attika that have faced disciplinary actions by the Licensing Board for providing hookahs to customers.
At the same June 19 meeting that Mir had its license suspended, police and firefighters were scheduled to present evidence about the use of hookahs at Las Palmas, 445 Essex St., and D'Wendy's Bar and Restaurant, 459 Broadway, according to the Licensing Board agenda.
Hookahs an 'epidemic'
The issue of bar-room hookah use first came up in 2015 when the owner of Methuen's Elixir Hookah Lounge on East Street reported to Lawrence officials that many of their city's bars and lounges were providing hookahs to their customers illegally, creating unfair competition for his establishment.
At that time, Elixir owner Nilesh Patel — who could not be reached for comment for this story — named a half-dozen bars and restaurants in the city that were providing hookahs to their customers. This led to investigations by the fire, police and health departments, followed by a rash of disciplinary actions by the Licensing Board.
Four years later, the problem persists.
Board of Health Chairman Dr. Joel Gorn said the proliferation of hookahs being used illegally in Lawrence "is an epidemic of great proportions."
"It's been going on for years and it's getting worse," Gorn said. "It's a public health issue. It's about time there's a public outcry. ... It's time we took a stand and closed these places down."
But the Marine brothers are frustrated. Jonas admitted it was "not the first time" Mir had gotten into trouble for allowing patrons to use hookahs, but he also said they are forced to do so for competitive reasons.
Angel pointed out it is OK to smoke hookahs in Methuen, as well as in New Hampshire and Boston.
In those places, hookah lounges are legal but only under strict circumstances. In particular, the municipality must approve of the hookah lounges by ordinance, followed by various building code restrictions such as having advanced air filtration and ventilation systems and fire-retardant furniture and construction materials.
The Marine brothers said people are flocking to bars with hookahs and it's unfair that they can't legally participate.
"Why are businesses here (in Lawrence) suffering when just a stone's throw away businesses are doing well?" Angel questioned. "We are losing business. We will eventually shut down (without hookahs). That's how lucrative it is. People don't want to go out (to bars) without hookahs."
Houten said he's heard estimates that some bars or restaurants make as much as $5,000 a night offering hookas, which includes renting the water pipe and selling the flavored tobacco and the charcoal used to heat it.
Gorn said the bars charge $50 to put the hookah on a table and $30 for "every fill" of tobacco and charcoal.
Jonas Marine said hookahs are used by many people in all sorts of places, not just bars and restaurants.
"They've swept through the city culturally," he said.
Frustrated with a lack of help from City Hall, a group of club owners have formed the Lawrence Bar & Restaurant Association to look out for their rights and push back against what they say is overzealous enforcement of laws targeting night clubs.
"The Licensing Board has no idea how much this affects our business," Jonas said, referring to the ban on hookahs. "We feel like they are targeting us to put us out of business."
Houten said the only way hookahs could be allowed in Lawrence is if the city passes an ordinance allowing them in dedicated smoking rooms or bars.
In addition, under state law a hookah bar would have to get 51 percent of its revenue from the sale of tobacco products.
The Marines said they'd be happy to do whatever the city wants them to do to upgrade their business to make hookah smoking safe and legal.
"We'd do whatever the city tells us to do," Jonas said, adding that other members of the club owners' organization feel the same way.
"If the city gave us the opportunity to do this legally and locally, we'd all jump at the chance," he said.
Broadhurst, the Marine's attorney, said Lawrence "needs to address the issue" because the use of hookahs has become so widespread.
"A lot of places are doing it anyway without licenses," he said.
Gorn said that initially the Licensing Board let club owners use electronic hookahs because, he said, the night clubs are a "big part of our economy" that employ a lot of people and pay a lot in property taxes.
However, the club owners decided to start offering tobacco products in the hookahs, too. That's something the board would never approve, he said, because it creates a public health problem with second-hand smoke.
"They just decided to do it themselves," he said. "I will not allow smoking bars in the city of Lawrence as long as I'm chairman."
He noted that the bars "skirt the law because they make so much more than the piddly fines they are cited for. They realize it's worth the risk.
Mayor Dan Rivera also is against the hookahs.
"I don't approve of them," Rivera said. "And the patrons who are not consuming it would be bothered by it as well."
He wasn't sympathetic to the idea that hookahs make a lot of money for the establishments that allow them.
"There's 100 ways you can make money and a lot of them are legal," he said. "You need to make money that (the legal) way."