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Seattle's war on hookah lounges, hotbeds of crime

at the hookah bar

Another Monday night at Aladdin Hookah Lounge, stone sober and plotting robberies. Some people, they drink booze before breaking the law. Others, they prefer pomegranate-flavored tobacco. That’s me. I was ordering some, slouched on the couch, when I noticed the waitress looking depressed.

“It’s Murray,” she explained. “Mayor Ed Murray. He’s declared war on hookah lounges. We're full of criminals, he says.” As others overheard her, a low murmur emerged beneath the lounge’s pleasant tabla beat. The end of an era had been announced.

I sat in disbelief. All the hookah-related crime in Seattle. My own illicit activities. Both would soon come to an end, I realized. Thanking her for the news, I paid my bill and left, stunned but prepared to create a new life for myself. A life of quiet reflection and community volunteering. No more hookah-inspired hooliganism.

And we all have Ed Murray and city officials to thank.

This week, Murray announced plans to shut down all 11 of Seattle’s hookah lounges. In a public statement, the mayor lumped them together as hotbeds of crime, and connected King’s Hookah Lounge in the International District to the shooting of community leader Donald Chin, citing it as his impetus to act.

There’s no formal tie between the hookah lounge and Chin’s tragic death two weeks ago, it should be noted. The shooting occurred on the street near King’s at roughly 3 a.m., according to police. The lounge’s closing time is 1 a.m., and owner Amar Al Alimi is adamant they were closed for hours before the shooting.

To fill in the argument's blanks, therefore, the city pointed out there have been three homicides near hookah lounges in the past 18 months – one within a block of Da Spot Hookah Lounge near Denny Triangle, one by Royal Hookah Bar in the International District, and the shooting near King's. Seattle police have also responded to more than 100 fights and disturbances at them over the past three years.

“I don’t want to see another person killed or harmed as a result of violence related to hookah lounges,” Murray said when announcing the crackdown.

Summing this argument up, hookah lounges are creating criminal activity that wouldn’t otherwise exist in the city. As Scott Lindsay, Murray’s Special Assistant on Police Reform and Public Safety, told me later, these lounges are criminal hotspots not only during hours of operation, but hours after closing as well.

And yet critics of Murray’s announcement – who don’t understand, like I do, that comfortable seating, subdued lighting, and pleasantly flavored tobacco are a prerequisite for some wrongdoers to act – say there are holes in this logic. So let’s lay out their arguments, just to put them to rest.

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1) Crime around bars and nightlife is worse: If there were machine gun firefights in front of Hard Rock Cafe on a weekly basis, the city would only try to shutter that particular den of inequity. But in this case, crimes near some hookah lounges are being cited as reason to close them all down forever.

As Murray put it, the problem is not with a particular business, but “a certain type of business.” And, it’s suggested, a certain type of person who frequents Seattle’s hookah lounges, given they exist in nearly every major city without these sort of campaigns seeming necessary.

There are other businesses that seem to provoke reports of violence and disturbances: bars and nightclubs. There have been over 100 disturbances reported around hookah lounges over the course of three years, the city argues. Hundreds are reported every year near the area’s bars and clubs.

Asked about this at the press conference, Murray said it's legal to consume alcohol indoors, not tobacco. Smoking lounges should be shut down anyway, he insinuated, regardless of whether bars are more crime-ridden. The lounges are a problem he can solve, with plans to start in earnest later this month.

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole had a more interesting answer. She said a big difference between bars and hookah lounges is their operating hours. Lounges often close much later – as late as 4 a.m. in some cases– and thus attract an unsavory element during the wee hours of the night.

To some, this might seem like the true issue to address. After a long night of drinking, hookah lounges are giving people a place to go and keep things rolling. Inevitably, these late-hour drunks are going to cause problems, potentially get violent. Each of the three aforementioned homicides occurred at 3 a.m. or later, when lounges were probably the only open gathering places for miles. Or, in the case of King’s, were listed as closed.

Lindsay said the city has discussed the closing hour issue with King’s Hookah Lounge – and perhaps other hookah lounges, though that was unclear – with no success. While King’s closing time of 1 a.m. is earlier than some other lounges, he suggested lounges often allow their customers to linger past their official hours of operation. This could be taken as a theory on the connection between Chin’s shooting and the ostensibly closed lounge.

Pressed further on the discrepancy between hookah-related disturbances and bar-related disturbances, Murray said that “if we have a bunch of Irish pubs in this city where young people are being shot and murdered outside them, I’ll close them down… What we have right now is a situation that is clearly connected to a certain type of business and we’ve got to act.”

2) This is nanny state politics: Naturally, some will say this is a textbook example of government protecting citizens from themselves. In this case, by limiting their access to tobacco in social settings. This was underlined at the press conference announcing the crackdown, which allocated a fair amount of time to the dangers of tobacco use, and how the city must pull out all the stops to prevent it in young adults.

The city has discussed shutting hookah lounges down for a while, citing the indoor smoking they facilitate. This is a violation of state law, but only if the lounges have employees. Most hookah lounges claim to be private clubs with no employees, only part-owners, so enforcement against them has been tricky.

On Yelp, a search for hookah bars reveals 30 results in Portland, 71 in San Francisco, 336 in LA, and 553 in New York City. All of these locations have similar indoor smoking laws to Seattle.

The no-employee loophole has led to some creativity on the part of local law enforcement, in their quest to make life harder for indoor smokers. Back in 2013, for example, police brass approved an operation to dole out $205 tickets to hookah lounge customers, which never took effect. The lack of follow through was attributed to election year calculations by the City Attorney's office, with then-mayor Mike McGinn afraid to upset immigrant and minority communities (among the biggest hookah lounge customers). McGinn, for his part, said the city should have a dialogue with the lounges similar to other nightlife establishments, regardless of the fact they're de facto indoor smoking zones.

Outside of the crime these lounges inspire, some may question who they're really bothering. Every adult walking into one is perfectly aware tobacco is being used there. It’s not like sitting at a bar or restaurant that allows smoking, and being forced to breathe it. No one enters a hookah lounge expecting clear air.

Nonetheless, as a Public Health spokeswoman told the Seattle Times, taxpayer money has been used to finance sting operations against hookah bars, aimed at collecting “evidence of failure to comply with the smoking ban” in these explicitly smoke-oriented businesses.

  

3) This is an enforcement of cultural norms on outsiders: No matter how many fights and shootings occur outside of bars and taverns, no one is arguing that we should close them all down. Whatever their safety risks, the Western world values the ability to unwind with some alcohol. Any city, state, or country that would deprive me of a beer at the end of a day is a place worth vacating.

In parts of India and the Middle East, hookah lounges serve a similar role to bars and taverns. This tradition goes back a very long time. For Muslims in particular, who often don’t drink alcohol, they are a place to relax, socialize, and meet like-minded people.

This is how I first became acquainted with hookah lounges – I frequented one near UCLA’s campus with people who wanted to hang out sans alcohol. As a white guy, I was always in the minority there. The same goes for most of my visits to Seattle’s hookah bars. Striking up conversations with customers at these establishments, one often learns they are from other countries.

So sure, hookah lounges represent a cultural touchstone for some immigrants. For some, they’re one of the small pleasures in life, and a part of socializing and meeting people. But the hard truth is this is Seattle, and we have certain values to enforce, regardless of how weirdly puritanical they may seem sometimes. Tobacco represents a public health and safety risk. And alcohol... well, it does too. In a major way. But we like it more.

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One day, we'll all realize – like Murray – that the existence of these lounges isn't a victimless crime, and giving them better guidelines and rules won't solve anything. Every other city will come around on this fact eventually. As for me, I'm keeping my hookah-derived criminality in the rear view mirror, and staying busy by reading, exercising, and writing a business plan for the best cigar bar Seattle has ever seen. Those seem safe for now.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.