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Proposed hookah ban draws large crowd at health dept. meeting

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Hookah fans, bar owners, cocktail waitresses and bartenders showed up in force at a hearing to speak against a proposed ban on hookahs in public spaces.---

In a packed and overheated hearing room, dozens of citizens showed up to voice opposition to a proposed rule change that would extend the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act’s prohibition of cigarette and tobacco smoke in public places to also include hookah smoke. While the act passed in 2007, the language of the rule did not specifically prohibit hookahs, which have legally existed in a state of limbo as owners have argued in the past that smoke generated from hookahs isn’t ignited like cigarette’s but rather is warmed and vaporized.

That was until now.

In the wake of health officials in Davis and Utah counties banning the products, a statewide ban is now being proposed by the Utah Department of Health.

Jeff Dent, one of many who spoke against the ban, challenged claims that second-hand smoke from hookah pipes is at all comparable to cigarette smoke, citing research that found 4,700 compounds released from cigarette smoke compared to 142 compounds from hookah smoke. A different process, he says, considering that hookah is smoked through elongated stem mouthpieces that are cooled through heated water bowls.

Nate Porter an owner of the Huka Bar and Grill, argued the rule was unfair to his business, which had originally set itself up as a cigarette-smoke free environment in 2005. Now after hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment and providing employment to 90 employees, his business is ready to be snubbed out by the proposed rule change. “We went from being the good, clean kid on the block to pretty much being demonized,” Porter said. Facing such a dismal prospect, he announced that his bar would revert back to being a private club, where members would be made aware of possible health dangers to hookah smoking before signing up, rather than being put out of business.

He even called on health officials to craft specific regulations for hookahs, but asked that hookah smoke not be lumped in with more harmful tobacco products like cigarettes, cigars and pipes. “Do what you need to do, but do not put us out of business,” Porter said. “You’re taking an iconic Utah nightclub and destroying it.”

While more than a dozen speakers blasted the rule as unfair to small businesses and invasive of individual liberties, only a handful spoke in opposition, many of them health officials and anti-tobacco experts. Anti-tobacco advocates argued that despite being water-vaporized, research from groups like the World Health Organization has shown hookah smoke to contain tar and toxic heavy metals that can cause heart disease, cancer and nicotine addiction much like cigarettes do. In some cases, even the charcoal used to warm the pipes can emit harmful chemicals.

Gayle Parker, a tobacco prevention specialist with the Tooele School District, challenged that tobacco smoking is harmful “in any form” but the practice also “puts forward the idea that smoking is safe or societally acceptable.”

Some argued that unlike cigarettes in bars, nobody walks into hookah-oriented establishments expecting anything else but hookahs. “Not many people stumble into [the Huka Bar] looking for scrapbook supplies,” said Jeremy Crocker, whose wife works as a manager at the Huka Bar. While his comment got chuckles from the crowd, he also urged the record to note that his wife’s employment was vital to his family’s well-being, citing the fact that the business supports the raising of their special-needs three-year-old child. Without his wife Jen’s employment, Jeremy would not be able to be a stay-at-home dad, his wife testified.

Without her managing job, “I would have to start at the bottom of…who knows where,” Jen Crocker said.

The public is invited to comment on the rule change up until 5 p.m. on June 14. Comments can be emailed to rmarsden@utah.gov