IN BAY RIDGE, it’s one of the most popular ways to relax. In the East Village, college students and sharply dressed young professionals do it while working on their laptops. Along Steinway Street in Astoria, it seems as if every other storefront is dedicated to it. In Washington Heights, people sit in lawn chairs on the sidewalk and do it while soaking up sunlight.
People smoking hookah has become a common scene in New York City, and the number of hookah bars has exploded in recent years. According to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “the number of hookah bars in the City more than doubled between April 2012 and August 2015.” But many of those businesses could be in jeopardy as the City Council considers legislation aimed at reigning in hookah’s rapid expansion.
The campaign against hookah bars is not altogether new. The rise of hookah is occurring as the city continues its two decades-long “NYC Smoke-Free” campaign. For a number of years, concerned community members have been calling on the city to address the health concerns surrounding hookah, particularly among minors. As hookah has risen in popularity, meanwhile, New York hookah bars have successfully exploited loopholes in the city’s otherwise strict smoking laws— loopholes that City Council officials are trying to close with the proposed legislation.
Regulating an already booming industry has proven tricky for city lawmakers, however. National discourse about Arab Americans, especially during this year’s presidential election, has made some conversations related to hookah particularly sensitive. Councilmembers say they want what’s best for everyone in the city, but some small business owners and Arab cultural advocates say that the bills as written go too far.