LAWRENCE — With the threat of losing their businesses hanging over their heads, the owners of 10 local nightclubs were urged Wednesday night to sign onto a plan to fund the hiring of up to six inspectors who would tour the city at night looking for violations of the hookah ban.
Nearly two dozen owners, employees, promoters and even former Mayor William Lantigua stood by at the Licensing Board hearing in a cramped room on the second floor of City Hall as Mike Armano, director of Inspectional Services, outlined his proposal.
“Everyone on this list has had an issue with hookah,” Armano said, referring to the Licensing Board agenda that listed 10 establishments facing disciplinary action for providing hookah smoking devices in their nightclubs. Hookahs have been banned by the Board of Health in Lawrence although they are allowed in one club in Methuen and several others in New Hampshire and Boston.
“You guys play a game, hiding the hookah,” he said. Aside from being illegal due to health concerns, Armano said hookahs also create a fire hazard and are an “immediate danger” to patrons and employees of nightclubs.
Hookahs are large water pipes that can be used by multiple people. Damp tobacco is placed in a bowl at the top of the pipe and heated, with the smoke or vapor then inhaled by patrons through flexible hoses. Hookahs have been used for hundreds of years by people in the Middle East, particularly Turkey, and Far East, including India, where they are used in social settings while people drink tea.
In Lawrence over the past two or three years, they have become staple offerings at nightclubs as more and more patrons demand them. Club owners claim that if they don’t have hookahs, they lose business, either to other Lawrence clubs ignoring the ban, or to places where smoking hookah is legal.
At its next meeting Sept. 25, the Licensing Board will review recent violators of the hookah ban and further discuss the idea of creating an ordinance that would mandate clubs fund a hookah inspection unit made up of city police, fire and Inspectional Services agents.
Armano said a number of the clubs have been caught in recent years with hookah and they have been hit with fines ranging from 60- to 30-day suspensions, which “can cripple or wipe out” a club.
“That’s not what we are in the business of doing,” he told the crowd. “We don’t want to wipe them out.”
The Licensing Board sent letters to recent offenders to get them together so Armano and the board could propose a plan that would enable them to stay open while also removing hookahs from their establishments.
“I’ve heard stories of large groups of people coming into a nightclub and when they go to order, they ask about hookah,” Armano said. “And when you say ‘no,’ they all walk out, go up the street to a place that has hookah.”
To level the playing field, and make it impossible for any of the businesses to have hookahs, Armano proposed that all the nightclubs put money into a fund that could then be used to hire additional personnel in the fire, police or Inspectional Services departments to patrol the city every night, looking for violations of the hookah law.
He suggested two teams of three inspectors, roaming the city in four-hour shifts, going from one establishment to another to look for violations.
If the clubs don’t go along with the plan, he said, they could face “harsh discipline” from the Licensing Board, up to and including forfeiture of their liquor licenses.
But if, as he suspects would happen, everyone stops offering hookahs in their lounges, then nobody in the city would have a competitive advantage.
“If the clubs don’t buy in (to the plan), I don’t know what to say,” Armano said. “I throw up my hands. The only solution would be harsh discipline by the Licensing Board.”
The idea received mixed reviews from club owners and their supporters.
Maria Thomas of Las Palmas said she liked the idea.
“We don’t want to get in trouble but we want to stay in business,” she said. “By enforcing it, you take it out of our hands. Nobody will have hookah. I second the idea. It keeps everybody on the same page.”
Angel Marine of Mir Tapas Lounge, however, noted: “You want us to pay for a detail when we aren’t making any money.”
Licensing Board Chairwoman Lesley Melendez said if club owners really want to offer hookahs to their customers, they need to band together and overturn the city ordinance banning them.
“You have to follow the law or change it,” she said. “You have to become the champions of this. Find that voice and have them (the Board of Health) hear you.”
She noted, “The ordinance in Lawrence bans hookahs in Lawrence. You need to try to change that ban.”
After the hearing, Marine said the Board of Health refuses to listen to any talk of lifting the ban.
“They are the ones that banned hookahs,” he said.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the Board of Health, Dr. Joel Gorn, reiterated his opposition to hookahs in the city.
“I will not authorize smoking bars in the city of Lawrence,” he told The Eagle-Tribune. “I find it sad that our nightlife culture finds that sitting around smoking unfiltered tobacco in an indoor environment is what everyone wants these days. ... I don’t know if there’s an easy solution, so I’ve just decided to stand my ground and oppose any relaxation of the rules.”
He said the issue has recently become political as well.
“Another problem is that we have city councilors who want to see hookah bars function legally,” he said. “I’ve heard some talk of the City Council not approving a third board member unless they are pro-hookah. I’m concerned how politicians of Lawrence think hookah bars are good for our economy or our public health. They are neither of the two.”
The Board of Health wasn’t able to meet in July and August because two of the three members had left the board. At least two members are necessary for a quorum.
A new member — Stephen Hill, a registered nurse at Lawrence General Hospital — recently joined the board, which met for the first time in three months Tuesday night.