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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Where There's Smoke There Are Regulations: Ilia Shrago strolls past the last remaining hookah lounge in town

Smoke and Fears

The city of Santa Cruz cracks down on hookah bars

By Curtis Cartier

THE SANTA CRUZ City Council is not a fan of hookah parlors. Last Tuesday, city leaders took all of three minutes to discuss and approve a set of tough new restrictions that outlaws hookah parlors from setting up shop near schools and parks, and also caps the number of parlors allowed in city limits at two. The new laws come in addition to previous regulations that keep hookah parlors from serving food or beverages--including water--and from having live music.

For councilmembers like Katherine Beiers and Don Lane, the parlors, which offer flavored tobacco for smoking in communal water pipes, represent an unhealthy activity for residents and a dangerous influence for kids. But for hookah parlor owners like Nathan Madani, the new laws are just one more swipe against personal freedoms and entrepreneurs.

"When I opened Madani's Hookah Parlor we got all kinds of trouble from the city," says Madani from Hollywood, where he's relocated his hookah business after closing his North Pacific Avenue store last year. "They wanted to make an example of me because I was the only one in town at the time. I lost around $30,000 just doing floor plan requirements for the city. It's unfair."

At the crux of the council's decision is a recent report by the World Health Organization that describes a single hookah smoking session as equal to a "cigarette smoker inhaling 100 or more cigarettes." Councilmember Beiers went so far as to say she'd like the parlors banned altogether.

"It's obviously unhealthy and not something I think we should be supporting," says Beiers. "Sure, I'd like them gone, but for now I'm content with the new ordinance."

Until early 2008, Santa Cruz hosted three hookah parlors. Today, both Madani's shop and the Giza Hookah Lounge on Mission Street have closed their doors, leaving the Smoke This! parlor on Laurel Street next to the Santa Cruz Teen Center the only hookah house in town. Despite its close proximity to the Teen Center, under the new laws, Smoke This! will be grandfathered in and won't be forced to leave. Any future parlors, however, would be effectively banned from the downtown business district, as they must keep 1,000 feet away from schools, parks and recreation areas, leaving few places in the city where they would be allowed.

A manager at Smoke This! was reluctant to give his thoughts on the new regulations. He did say, however, that business was better since his competitors left town. Madani, meanwhile, says he has a few words of advice for anyone considering opening Santa Cruz's second hookah parlor.

"Do your homework, be ready to spend a lot of money. And good luck finding a building," he says.

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