HOOKAH COMMUNITY FIGHTS TO KEEP THE CUTURAL TRADITION OF HOOKAH ALIVE IN THE CITY OF L.A.
On June 16, 2021, the L.A. City Council voted to exempt existing LA hookah lounges for on and off-site sales from a proposed flavored tobacco ban. The proposed flavored tobacco ban was introduced in 2019 by Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell to address the rising tide of teen vaping which according to the Center for Disease Control reached 27.5% of high school students in 2019.
The L.A. City Council voted to include an exemption to hookah thanks to the efforts of the member of the National Community Hookah Association (NHCA). NHCA is comprised of passionate and diverse minority leaders and was established to educate lawmakers and the public about the cultural significance of hookah and its importance to immigrant and minority owned small businesses.
The broad flavored tobacco ban did not just include vape, it also included hookah tobacco because all hookah tobacco is flavored. Hookahs are the centerpiece of cultural social gatherings and often seen at community celebratory events. Hookah is a 1,000 year cultural tradition in Armenian, Arab, Indian, Persian, Turkish and other minority groups. Many of these people have immigrated to the United States and call Los Angeles their home. In their pursuit of the American dream, many of these people have started businesses to share their traditions and service the growing minority communities in Los Angeles. These hard working immigrants have poured their heart and soul into their businesses, which supports their family and extended family.
Several L.A.City council members who had a large constituency that practiced hookah, championed a hookah exemption that mirrored SB793. These leaders that respect and celebrate the diversity of L.A. include Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, Kevin de Leon and John Lee. They support L.A.’s minority communities and their small businesses that were already struggling due to closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other L.A. City Councilmembers that wanted to prevent the unintended consequences of the broad flavored tobacco ban included Gil Cedillo, Curren Price, Paul Koretz, Joe Buscaino, and Bob Bloomingfeld, all of whom voted to address youth access and usage of flavored tobacco product, while also protecting hookah. The L.A.City flavored tobacco ban proposal passed which exempted existing legally operating smoker’s lounges which will be specially permitted by the Tobacco Enforcement Program. These Smoker’s Lounges will be limited to 21 years of age or older and the sale of flavored shisha tobacco products will be permissible for on-site or off-site consumption. These permits are non-transferablebut a new permit may be applied for according to the author, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, however many are waiting on the final ordinance language from the L.A. City Attorney’s office to confirm.
NHCA was thankful for the limited hookah exemption and to the councilmembers that stood up to protect the cultural tradition of hookah, however it feels that it fell short of the 21 and over lounge AND retail hookah exemption of SB793, which is on referendum and expected to be voted on at the November 2022 general election. As a result, many 21 and over retail establishments owned by minority business owners, many of which have never been cited for selling to minors, will be forced to close down. Many of these businesses have several years on their leases that are personally guaranteed by the owners, meaning many will be faced with bankruptcy and potentially many hardships to come.
For the National Hookah Community Association, which is a non-profit 501(c)(6), their work is far from over. They are on a mission to educate lawmakers about the rich cultural tradition of hookah and bring minority communities together and give them a voice. "Hookah is a misunderstood custom that is very different from vape. We are not advocating for tobacco, we are merely trying to protect our right to practice our cultural traditions", stated Arnie Abramyan, National Hookah Community Association President.