A loophole in Oregon law contributes to an increase in the popularity of tobacco use

Oregon law prohibits smoking in most public places and workplaces as well as within 10 feet of their entrances, exits, open windows and air intake vents. That ban, along with public education about the dangers of tobacco use, appears to have been effective in reducing the number of people in the state who smoke to well below the national average.

Now, however, the state Public Health Division is worried about a new trend: Increasing numbers of Oregon teenagers and young adults are trying out water pipes with flavored tobaccos called shisha and socializing in hookah lounges where smoking is the main activity.

So far, the statewide hookah bar scene is concentrated heavily in the Portland area. There’s one in Springfield — R&J Hookah Lounge at 720 South A St. — and Shady and Lara Yasin, owners of Al Narah Hookah Lounge in southeast Portland, plan to open another with the same name at 1530 Willamette St. in Eugene. Ratatouille, a vegetarian restaurant, previously occupied the building before moving recently to Crescent Village in Eugene’s northeast corner.

Contacted by telephone Thursday, Shady Yasin said the retail side of the new business could open as soon as this week, but it may be the end of January before the lounge area begins operating. But some nearby neighbors of the proposed hookah lounge would rather it didn’t happen.

Its location within a block of two children’s dance academies concerns Riley Grannan, managing director of Eugene Ballet, which runs one of the schools.

“It’s only about 50 feet away from us,” Grannan said. “I don’t think it’s the healthiest thing, especially in an area most frequented by young people. It’s interesting because Eugene has worked so hard to eliminate smoking in work places — and going from a vegetarian restaurant to a hookah lounge is a bit of a change.”

Stephanie Young-Peterson, tobacco prevention coordinator for Lane County, says the proliferation of hookah bars and lounges happens because of a loophole in Oregon’s smoke-free workplace law. “These places are using the ‘smoke shop exemption’ in order to become certified to allow smoking on their premises,” Young-Peterson said. “The exemption says that if 75 percent of the gross revenue of the business comes from the sale of tobacco products and smoking instruments, smoking inside the building can be allowed.”

For example, at this point R&J Hookah Lounge can allow smoking only outside — and more than 10 feet away from entrances, exits, windows and air vents as required by law — because it hasn’t received certification from the state yet on the gross revenue provision, she said.

Other requirements imposed on smoke shops by state law include prohibiting entry to people younger than 18, posting signs at every entrance and exit stating that smoking occurs somewhere on the premises, not allowing lottery or other social games or betting, not selling alcoholic beverages and being a stand-alone business not attached to any other buildings.

That’s an issue with the planned Al Narah Hookah Lounge “because its wall bumps up to the wall of the next building, and the two share roof flashing, but officially they’re separate,” Young-Peterson said. “And even though their exhaust dumps right by the other building’s intake vent, the law says it has to be ‘active smoke’ entering the vent.”

That’s potentially a serious problem, because the adjacent building houses several health-related practices such as massage therapy, naturopathy, acupuncture and chiropractics, she said.

The original smoke shop exemption was intended to accommodate old-fashioned cigar and tobacco shops “where someone occasionally might want to try a sample” but not linger there specifically to smoke, Young-Peterson said. “But these new businesses understand the exemption and know how to get around it. They’re creating a bar or club atmosphere that targets 18- to 25-year-olds — and even younger kids because research shows they’re not really enforcing the age limits — and that’s what creates so much concern.”

From 2008 to 2009, cigarette use had dropped by about 1 percent among 11th-graders in Oregon, according to a clean air compliance study by the Oregon Tobacco Prevention and Education Program of the state Public Health Division. During the same period, hookah use jumped by 3 percent.

As part of the study, the Environmental Protection Agency sent people with monitoring equipment into 10 hookah lounges to take air samples; peak fine particle air pollution levels ranged from unhealthy to very unhealthy and, in one case, hazardous.

Besides the health consequences of frequenting establishments with so much smoke — hookahs use coals, often charcoal, to heat rather than burn tobacco directly — many younger users don’t understand the dangers of becoming addicted because the practice is so different from smoking cigarettes, Young-Peterson said.

The shisha used in hookahs comes in dozens of flavors, which mask the taste of the tobacco and makes it seem less like smoking, she said.

“But there is a high risk of becoming addicted and then turning to cigarettes, because they are more convenient and accessible. There’s a real misunderstanding, especially among young people, about the dangers of this activity.”

The come-on to the younger crowd is unmistakable, based on many lounges’ online presentations. Al Narah’s website opens to a golden orange page with a picture of a long-haired woman, seen from the back, arms raised above her head and hands pressed together. A series of messages flash past ending with, “We invite you to enter a place filled with exotic and seductive aroma.”

R&J Hookah Lounge takes a more direct approach. “We are looking to bring you the greatest experience from a hookah lounge and be your best place to go out and have fun. We will be having various nights of dancing and theme nights, along with having a place to come chill and smoke some shisha,” its website says. “We have Wi-Fi access for those of you that want to come relax and smoke hookah, but also focus on your studies. Tired of not being able to go out and dance or hang with your friends since most places won’t let you in because you’re not 21 and up? Well head over to our lounge and smoke some shisha!!!”

The fact that hookah lounges target young people is especially disturbing, Young-Peterson said. “From a public health standpoint, we’re not too keen on it; it’s not good.”

By Randi Bjornstad
The Register-Guard

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