07/14/2011 09:34 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2011

San Francisco Hookah Ban: A Racist Policy?

Bad news for SF smokers: The public health department is shutting down 17 hookah lounges for allegedly violating bans on indoor smoking. But with an exemption for cigar bars that don’t serve food or drink, some point to an ignorance of culture as the shutdown’s motivation.

According to SFGate:

If hookah doesn’t come off the menu, these places could face fines of up to $500 and eventual closure – and the city is willing to take the matter to court, said Janine Young, senior environmental health inspector for the health department. “I get phone calls from people who choose not to smoke, but they smell smoke,” she said. “I get phone calls from people who have respiratory problems. I get phone calls from people who have small children.”

All in all, it sounds like the health department is fed up. But hookah lounge owners cite an ignorance of hookah culture as the culprit. As reported in SF Weekly:

He [the owner of a hookah lounge] adds that regulators have little understanding of hookah: “Even the health department, when they came in, I had to show them what to look for. I showed them the plastic tips and how the water vapor works. I explained to them that it’s dried fruit, not tobacco.”

Later, SFGate interviewed Al Saffar, a patron at Cairo Nights:

Hookah is a warm reminder of home – the Muslim country of Iraq. “We don’t have bars,” he said. “We go to hookah lounges and have discussions about sports, news, whatever’s happening in our countries.”

With business owners threatening to sue the city, we’re sure the battle over hookah is just warming up.