What has gotten so many young African Americans in the Baltimore metro area suddenly hooked on hookah?
Could it be the blur of hip hop and R&B music that seems to permeate most of the local hookah lounges, the intimacy of lounging and sometimes lying for hours on exotic cushions in smoke filled, darkened spaces with male and female friends and sometimes strangers, or the communal experience of a group of people sharing a single pipe?
Whatever the reason, it appears that the taboo nature of the experience does play a significant role.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a hookah is a Persian (Iranian) water pipe, also known as a argileh or goza.
It is used to vaporize or smoke a shisha, which is a wad of sticky tobacco soaked in honey or molasses that can be blended with other herbs and comes in different flavors, such as bubble gum, cola, apple, mint, cherry, chocolate, coconut, and licorice that is heated by charcoal in the top chamber.
A shisha flavor is selected from a menu of options and smoked through the hookah pipe fitted with one or more long, flexible tubes that draws the smoke through water or sometimes juice contained in a bowl at the bottom that cools the smoke.
In the Philippines, and it is suspected at some U.S. lounges, hookahs are regularly used to smoke marijuana, although it is not considered an efficient use of the herb.
Whatever their attraction, hookah lounges, nearly all of which are owned and managed by immigrants from the Middle East, where hookah use has been a tradition since the 1500s, are attracting urban young adults, black and white, male and female, straight and gay, gang members and some professionals
Most are in search of what may seem like a forbidden, adult or alternative lifestyle experience, but with considerable risks.
Despite the diversity seen in the U.S., Arab hookah lounges are almost exclusively for men.
According to the Center for Tobacco Regulation at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, there are presently 43 hookah lounges and 31 vapor lounges located in Maryland, with nine hookah lounges and seven vapor lounges in Baltimore County alone.
Two hookah lounges are within walking distance of Woodlawn High school.
Hookah lounges with names like Fire and Ice, Arabian Nights, Zeeba, Midnight Kings (MK), Gazuza, Madam’s Organ, and Little Morocco are now located throughout Baltimore City, Woodlawn, Randallstown, Towson, Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
Contrary to being glamorous places, most area hookah lounges are located in low-end strip malls, and have unremarkable exteriors which make the businesses almost invisible, and belie the activities taking place within.
A few hookah lounges include belly dancers, backgammon, tarnacde and other Middle Eastern games.
Until recently, those customers who were not finished twerking or drinking at nightclubs by 2:00 a.m. could continue doing so until well into the night, as after-hour hookah bars where customers are encouraged to BYOB.
Because hookah lounges do not officially serve liquor, (something many opponents doubt), lounge owners sought and received the same exemption under the Maryland Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007 as cigar stores and other establishments where the sale of tobacco products is their primary business.
Hookah lounges are, therefore, exempt in Baltimore County and throughout Maryland from regulation by local health departments and liquor boards.
That practice was abruptly changed in Baltimore County earlier this year when three African American men were shot outside of the Fire and Ice Hookah Lounge in Randallstown at 4:00 a.m.
That tragedy in February was followed by the stabbing of three young adults and a raucous clash between university students and County police outside a Towson hookah lounge last May.
Even prior to these two unrelated incidents, there had been ongoing complaints from community members and other businesses about wild hookah parties that lasted until dawn and the damage left in their aftermath.
Following the Towson incident, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz quickly proposed legislation to have all hookah lounges close by 8:00 p.m., stating “Hookah lounges were never given permission to function as after-hour clubs.”
The County Council amended his bill to include a 12:00 a.m. closing time.
Lounge owners were outraged, arguing restraint of trade because they were targeted as Arabs.
Hookah lounges have become a particular favorite of some gang members in urban areas like Detroit and its suburb Dearborn, Michigan, where the nation’s largest population of Arab Americans reside.
Last year, Detroit attempted to crack down on hookah lounges due to assaults, narcotics use and sales and shots fired. Since then, Arab hookah lounge owners in nearby Dearborn say African Americans now make up the vast majority of their customers and cater to their business with hip-hop music.
By mid-2014 Dearborn had to place a 180-day moratorium on opening new hookah lounges.
Cigar consumption by high school age African American males is higher than all other youth demographic groups, and cigar consumption is also 50 percent higher than cigarette use by African American youth.
Some associate it with a thug-life image, but many point to a more intense tobacco smoking experience than from cigarettes.
It is no surprise then that hookah has a rapidly increasing appeal to that same demographic group since it is more affordable than cigars, (about $30 to $40 for an hour long group hookah experience).
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Cancer Society, it is the length of the hookah experience that great increases its risk.
While a cigarette can be smoked in five minutes, visitors to hookah lounges typically spend no less than one hour in a closed space already saturated with smoke.
The amount of secondary smoke to which all smokers and non-smokers are exposed is multiplied.
One hour of hookah smoking is equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes.
Other public health dangers from hookah smoking include the following:
- High levels of toxic compounds (e.g., tar, carbon monoxide and heavy metals)
- Hookah smoking is linked to lung and oral cancers and heart disease
- The smoke delivers the same amount of nicotine as cigarettes leading to tobacco dependence
- Hookah smoke poses dangers associated with secondhand smoke to non-smokers
- Hookah smoking by pregnant women can result in low-birth weight babies
- Pipes used in lounges may not be cleaned properly, risking the spread of infectious diseases such as herpes, hepatitis and tuberculosis
It is the public health concerns that raise flags for newly elected State Senator Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, R.N. She says she will conduct further research into hookah lounges before the upcoming session.
“There will likely be several pieces of legislation to regulate e-cigarettes this session. We may have to expand it to include regulation of other possibly addictive products like hookahs. Recently there was an attempt to open a hookah lounge in the Frederick Road area of Baltimore, however, the community strongly opposed it. After speaking with the owner, it was quickly closed.”
Finally, while there is no direct evidence that some Hookah lounges may launderer money funneled to Hezbollah or other Middle Eastern terrorist groups.
This has become a common belief in many conservative circles. This is also part of the basis for some zealous attempts to rid communities of these largely Arab-owned business altogether.