Burnsville is taking a look at regulations for hookah lounges, joining a growing number of metro communities that have examined — and in some cases, snuffed out — the Middle Eastern-style smoking establishments.
“We’re just in the beginning stages,” said City Manager Heather Johnston. She said the city is researching other area communities’ regulations and expects to present that information to the City Council early next year.
Hookahs are water pipes for smoking flavored tobacco. Although used mainly by Minnesota’s Middle Eastern immigrant population, they also have become popular with young adults.
A 2007 state law prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants, but hookah lounges have been able to operate because the law allows tobacco shops to offer sampling, or smoking inside.
“In this business sampling means you buy the stuff and then you smoke it,” said Burnsville Council Member Mary Sherry at a recent work session. “If you go to Costco, and you get samples, it’s something you don’t pay for. If you paid for samples at Costco, it would be a restaurant. If you paid for samples at a liquor store, it would be a bar. So why do you pay for samples in a smoke shop? … It’s an indoor smoking lounge.”
Some cities have acted to close the sampling loophole. Twenty cities in Minnesota prohibit all indoor smoking, including sampling, according to the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. That includes metro-area communities like Hopkins, St. Louis Park, St. Anthony, Arden Hills, Roseville and Oakdale.
Other cities have limited hookah establishments without passing an outright ban. Minneapolis last year passed an ordinance that redefined sampling to discourage long-session smoking, according to city spokesman Matt Laible.
The tighter rules on sampling seem to be a trend throughout the Twin Cities, Johnston told council members. “With the prohibition in other communities, you might expect that we would get more of them,” she said.
Burnsville has seen two indoor hookah lounges open in recent months, and the city’s concerns about them seem to go beyond clean air issues.
Johnston said the city has received complaints from residents and neighboring businesses “for noise and things like that.” The Burnsville Police Department responded to 31 calls — all for minor offenses or “suspicion” that an offense was occurring — at the two establishments from June 1 to Oct. 20.
Representatives of Ignite Hookah Lounge, which accounted for 21 of the calls from Sept. 30 to Oct. 20, did not respond to an interview request.
Mohamed Taha, who opened Taha Hookah in June, said he was not aware of any serious complaints about his business.
“I heard about some garbage in the parking lot, but we cleaned it up,” Taha said. He said that when he first moved into his space in a strip mall, he sealed all cracks in common walls.
“Smoke is like water. It will find a way to seep through,” he said. But he believes the caulking has helped reduce the amount of smoke filtering into neighboring businesses.
A Bloomington resident, Taha chose to locate in Burnsville because he and friends had been making the long drive to hookah lounges in Columbia Heights.
Scott Clark, Columbia Heights community development director, said the city has had “minor issues” with its hookah lounges and has dealt with them on a case-by-case basis.
Taha said he hopes Burnsville decides to do the same. He recently quit his job at Delta Air Lines to devote himself full time to his hookah establishment.
“I have put my life savings into this,” he said. “I am trying to do a good job.”