As hookah lounges pop up in the Twin Cities, city leaders are intervening with stricter tobacco laws, citing health concerns.
Hookah lounges have found themselves increasingly unwelcome in the Twin Cities as more communities try to snuff out the growing Middle Eastern-style smoking.
Hookah advocates are fighting back, saying they're victims of discrimination. Last week, Saeed Kiblawi's tobacco license for his Flamezz Hookah Lounge was revoked by St. Anthony city leaders even though he successfully fought the city in court.
"Why is it they don't want us there?" said Kiblawi, 32, who moved to the Twin Cities from Lebanon 17 years ago. "I honestly can't see any reason but my background."
City leaders counter that they tightened the tobacco law for the same reason other cities have: protecting people from the hazards of smoking.
"It wouldn't have made any difference who it was," said St. Anthony Mayor Jerry Faust. "We would have still looked at it as a public health issue."
Hookahs, which are water pipes for smoking flavored tobacco called shisha, are prominent among Minnesota's Middle Eastern immigrant population and are growing in popularity among young adults. As hookah spreads, other states such as Oregon last year have tightened tobacco laws to restrict it. Minnesota hookah lounges rely on a provision in the 2007 state ban on smoking in bars and restaurants that allows tobacco shops to offer sampling, or smoking inside -- although cities can restrict it.
"We have a state law that says no smoking. Why is it fair to allow certain businesses to circumvent state law?" asked Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who championed the city's ordinance last year.
Both the Mayo Clinic and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say hookah poses the same health risks and secondhand smoke dangers as cigarettes, rejecting widespread perceptions that hookah is less harmful.
The Minneapolis ordinance prohibits tobacco stores from providing a smoking device for sampling tobacco unless the customer purchased the device. City licensing staff said hookah lounges were taking advantage of the lack of definition for "sampling" in state law to "justify the operation of exclusive smoking nightclubs."
Justin Jahangiri said the city ordinance will put him out of business. He opened Shiraz Hookah at Cedar Avenue and Lake Street last June, right before the city passed the ordinance.
Since then, he's been fighting the ordinance, saying it's unconstitutional and discriminatory because it leaves cigar shops alone; at his hookah lounge, it's impractical to expect customers to buy a water pipe, which start at $45 a piece, each time. His attorneys filed a civil case against the city with the next court date June 1.
Glidden said cigar shops are subject to the same ordinance, and the city didn't outlaw tobacco sampling in its entirety because state law allows it. So "we better define sampling," she said.
Jahangiri, 32, an Iranian-American born and raised in California, said the clash with the city shows hookah is misunderstood in the Twin Cities.
"It's a cultural tradition," he said. "They have a misconception of what's going on."
Last week, more than a dozen African and Middle Eastern men crowded into the dark room of Shiraz Hookah in the middle of the afternoon, shaking hands as they arrived. For many of them, the hookah lounge is their social scene. They reclined on couches surrounded by the sweet smell of apple-flavored tobacco while the sound of bubbling water pipes echoed under soft R&B music. No alcohol or food is served; people are just there to smoke.
That's the problem, city leaders say, arguing that cigar shops are primarily retail stores, while hookah lounges make their money from customers puffing on site.
In St. Anthony, city leaders banned all tobacco sampling last April. It has led to a year-long battle with Kiblawi's Flamezz Hookah Lounge, where he says he installed a $40,000 ventilation system only to have the city then approve the ban.
He was acquitted in mid-March in Hennepin County District Court of charges that he violated the city's new tobacco ordinance. But last week, the City Council unanimously revoked his license. Kiblawi and his lawyer, Eric Brever, are exploring filing a joint discrimination case with advocates of a proposed Islamic center in St. Anthony that had their project delayed, arguing there's "a pattern of long-standing Muslim discrimination," Brever said.
Until then, Kiblawi said he's struggling to find a city that will accept his business.
"People are not sure what they do," he said of hookah, "so they just say no."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib