By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — North Carolina’s ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, set to take effect Jan. 2, 2010, has apparently dodged a bullet this past week, though defenders of clean air are still not breathing easy.
Senate Bill 884 — which some lawmakers hoped to use to exempt Hookah Bars from the ban — was pulled from the House Calendar after debate in two committees.
“We’re glad to see this push for Hookah Bars halted,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “Stopping the spread of these businesses means our young people are less likely to start smoking.”
A recent report from the N.C. Prevention Partners showed that teens who use Hookah are eight times more likely to experiment with cigarettes.
“While this is a relief and possibly a victory, we must still be vigilant,” said Pam Seamans, policy director for the North Carolina Alliance for Health. “We know there are other efforts afoot to possibly weaken HB 2. We must now be constantly on the lookout.”
Rep. Cullie Tarleton (D-Watauga) had taken a totally unrelated bill and proposed a committee substitute to exempt Hookah Bars — where people smoke flavored tobacco via a water pipe — from the smoking ban. The substitute bill passed the Ways and Means Committee, but was amended to keep patrons under 21 out of Hookah Bars that serve alcohol. When the bill was referred to the Judiciary II Committee, another proposed committee substitute (PCS) was put forward by Tarleton that included a grandfather clause that would have applied to establishments that started in business before July 1. But the age requirement for patrons to be at least 21 to enter a Hookah establishment that sells alcohol had been removed.
Rev. Creech was not able to attend the Judiciary II Committee meeting because he had to Chair a Board of Directors meeting of the Christian Action League, which was occurring at the same time and on the same day. But Rev. Creech did send a statement on the measure that was read by the Christian Action League’s lobbyist, Tami Fitzgerald. In the statement,Rev. Creech strongly advocated the age 21 requirement for Hookah establishments that sell alcoholic beverages should remain in the bill.
Thanks to Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly), an amendment was run and passed that put the age 21 requirement back in the legislation. Lawmakers then approved the measure, but only by one vote (7-6). Supporters of the bill apparently then asked that it not move to the House floor.
“They thought the age restriction and the grandfather clause made the bill too restrictive,” Seamans said. “According to Rep. Tarleton, some of the Hookah Bar owners felt they would either stop serving alcohol and become tobacco shops instead or simply close their businesses.”
Even under the smoking ban, Hookah Lounges can still operate as tobacco shops, but can’t add other enterprises like a restaurant or bar. A growing trend in North Carolina and across the nation, Hookah appeals to the 18 – to 24-year-old crowd with businesses often popping up near college campuses.
Though many assume Hookah is less dangerous than cigarettes because of the use of water, users may actually be exposed to even more smoke because of the lengths of the sessions, according to a 2005 World Health Organization advisory. North Carolina has roughly 20 hookah bars.