Providence seeks to crack down on hookah bars

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Law enforcement officials in Rhode Island’s capital city say they plan to begin cracking down on hookah bars and other establishments that have managed to dodge the statewide indoor smoking ban that took effect in 2005.

In a letter sent Nov. 1 to all of the city’s liquor license holders, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare warned that that the city would be ramping up enforcement of the ban beginning in December. A similar letter was sent to bar and restaurant owners in April.

“The city will conduct a focused and strict enforcement initiative of this ban on hookahs beginning 30 days following the date of this notice,” Pare wrote. “Violators will be referred to the Board of Licenses for imposition of sanctions which may include fines or license suspension of revocation.”

In 2004, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law that banned indoor smoking in all enclosed public places, including restaurants and bars. But lawmakers carved out an exemption in the bill for establishments like cigar bars that draw more than 50% of their revenue from tobacco or other smoking-related products.

Since that time, hookah bars, which allow patrons to smoke flavored tobacco through a hookah pipe, have become increasingly popular. A 2011 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence showed more than 40% of college students had smoked from a hookah. More than 17% said they were regular hookah users.

Pare contends that many of the bars and restaurants in the city that allow hookah smoking are in violation of the indoor smoking ban because they do not draw more than half of their income through tobacco sales.

He said the city has never gone after hookah bars in the past, but the increased presence of hookahs in establishments has prompted complaints from patrons and business owners who do not allow smoking. Pare said owners will be brought in front of the city’s Board of Licenses to be sanctioned.

Pare said it is still unclear how many establishments in the city actually allow hookah.

“It’s clear this is a violation of state law,” Pare told WPRI.com. “You can’t have this device in your clubs as a licensee holder. So we want them to comply.”

Peter Petrarca, a former state representative who regularly appears in front of the liquor board as a lawyer and a club owner, said he believes the city is going to have problems when it comes to stepping up enforcement on bars and clubs that allow hookah smoking.

Petrarca, who co-owns a designated smoking bar on Federal Hill, said it is up to the Department of Health to determine whether clubs that allow smoking have the proper ventilation system and the Division of Taxation to determine whether a club draws 50% of its revenue from tobacco sales. He said the city has no mechanism for enforcing the ban.

“In my opinion, there is no fine they can levy unless they have a ruling from the Department of Health or the Division of Taxation,” Petrarca told WPRI.com.

Gianfranco Marrocco, a business partner of Petrarca’s who owns several of Federal Hill’s most popular restaurants, said the hookah ban is an example of the city being unfriendly to small businesses. He said he believes the city should tackle clubs that allow 18-year-olds before addressing hookah bars.

“Outlaw hookahs and bottle service, what a world-class Mickey Mouse city,” Marrocco told WPRI.com.

But city officials contend that cracking down on hookah bars is another example of Mayor Angel Taveras’s commitment to tackling tobacco use in Providence.

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court upheld two city ordinances that ban the sale of flavored tobacco and restrict stores from offering two-for-one discounts for tobacco products in Rhode Island’s capital city.

Peter Asen, director of the city’s healthy communities office, told WPRI.com Providence has taken steps to reduce second-hand smoke for city residents, promoting smoke-free public housing and ensuring that all of the schools are tobacco-free.

He said going after establishments that allow hookah is simply an example of the city enforcing a law that is already on the books.

“In terms of the growth over the last few years and recently of these places proliferating more and more, the concern is that the progress we’ve made keeping the air clean in these places could be undermined if people saw this as a loophole,” Asen said.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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