A cultural trait I can live without

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

A featured article in the Record on the growth of hookah bars caught my attention and elicited my response.

Smoking hookah has become a Paterson pastime. Hookah bars are the new hotspots in town. I would venture to say there are more hookah bars than any type of business in ‘Little Arabia”, the Middle Eastern enclave stretching along South Main Street in Paterson and Clifton. Many of the clients are non Arabs or Muslims who frequent these bars, partly attracted because of the hookah’s novelty and partly because some of the bars permit underage smoking. First of all, there is nothing Arab or cultural about hookah; it’s an Indian invention and the majority of Arabs disapprove of its practice. In fact many Muslim religious scholars come so close as to forbid any type of smoking. Their argument is that when you bring harm to your body by choice you disobey God’s order to preserve your body and stay healthy.

Last week’s front page article in The Record graphically highlights the legal and social hurdles facing owners of the many hookah bars spreading all over North Jersey. The piece also alludes to serious infractions and potential health concerns. The unprecedented growth of these bars is sadly defining the Middle Eastern community and enabling further negative criticism of Arab culture.

I am against hookah smoking indoors or outdoors. The 2006 NJ Smoke Free Act provides exemptions for outdoor smoking when certain conditions are present and an additional permits are obtained from the local health departments. Such exceptions were often based on linking hookah to the cultural heritage of the community. Hookah smoking if left unhindered promises to spiral uncontrollably consuming more valuable police manpower, towns’ resources and ultimately the peace of the neighborhoods. We all know that some unscrupulous owners and willing patrons look the other way as far as age requirements and smoking location are concerned. We also know that some smokers add illegal or dangerous substances to the tobacco to enhance their experience. The threat becomes more pronounced when underage smokers are permitted to smoke because of the falsehoods concerning its harmless effects. Research shows otherwise.
According to a 2005 study by the World health Organization, “The water pipe smoker may therefore inhale as much smoke during one session as a cigarette smoker would inhale consuming 100 or more cigarettes.” One thus wonders why the FDA has not yet issued its rulings on this nicotine producing and albeit flavored tobacco. Hookah tobacco, the vast majority of which is imported, remains either poorly labeled and its contents unspecified. The State of New Jersey is also losing the 30% tobacco tax to which it is entitled.

Most alarmingly are the rumors that certain permits are issued even though requirements have not been met. In preparing for this piece, I visited several hookah bars and with my untrained eye as a health inspector, I could document many visible violations as relates to ventilation, fire exits, true and complete separation between the outdoor area where smoking is permitted and the dining area where no smoking is allowed. Having patronized the food section of these establishments, I often wondered how the health department would have allowed dangerous electrical wiring and unsafe and unsanitary conditions to exist for so long in the hookah smoking sections. Most bars have come to live with fines or bribes as part of owing such a venture. To my knowledge no hookah bar has been shut down because of health or other licensing violations.

Over the past two decades, South Paterson, with its thriving and unique Middle Eastern shops and restaurants, has become a gateway for Arabs and Muslims from the tri-state area. Business activity, redevelopment, and improvements are evident all over. The City of Paterson, working with community and business leaders, should steer the area towards further expansion. We salute the efforts of Paterson Councilman Andre Sayegh, who is seeking to curtail the spread of these establishments and to ensure the full enforcement of the law. A stricter and more consistent enforcement is much desired. I urge the community to support Mr. Sayegh’s efforts. Let’s support businesses that provide tangible benefit to society.Complaints by self serving owners who talk about loss of business activity are meritless. I fail to see the business advantages of keeping these establishments open. As I pass these places during work hours, I would argue many of its patrons should be working instead.

I love my freedom, lest anyone have doubt. Adult smokers should be free to smoke hookah. My objection to hookah is not about people making personal choices but about the societal impact of such choices. True, the smoker may get very sick or even face death. But the cumulative cost to society in terms of medical costs and lost productivity is enormous. And when we add clear violations of established laws and restrictions, all of us are responsible to devise an appropriate policy. Personally, and as a past smoker of hookah, who ended up with a quintuple open heart surgery, I think smoking – all smoking – should be banned.

As an American of Arab decent, hookah smoking is a cultural trait I can live without.

Aref Assaf, PhD, President of the American Arab Forum, specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs.