On Thursday evening, representatives from the Mayor’s Office, the Office of Economic Development, the Office for Civil Rights, and the City Attorney’s Office met with business owners from all eleven hookah lounges operating in Seattle to discuss how to bring their businesses into compliance with the law.
The Mayor has instructed the Office of Economic Development to work with each ownership group to provide technical assistance concerning compliance with city, county and state law. In addition, Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights has begun utilizing the City’s Racial Equity Toolkit to analyze potential hookah lounge regulations and the public health and safety impact of those businesses on their employees, patrons and neighborhoods in which they operate.
While these discussions with business owners, community stakeholders and public health experts are occurring, business licenses will not be revoked for public health violations. However, periodic inspections may occur to ensure compliance with current law and the City will continue to monitor the businesses for public safety concerns.
“I have heard frequently, since my first days in office, from many voices and perspectives in our diverse East African community, as well as the Asian Pacific Islander community, who have expressed to me their concerns about smoking lounges. These lounges, as they currently operate, are not in compliance with state and local law. It’s clear that something must be done,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “At the same time, I have also heard clearly the impacts enforcement efforts may have on the owners of these businesses. To address their concerns, the city is committed to continue working with smoking lounge owners willing to work with us to help them transition to a legal business model and be good neighbors in our communities. We will ensure that we are fair and that smoking lounges must be in full compliance with state, county and city laws. It’s important we move forward on a path that benefits public health, public safety, supports strong neighborhoods and ensures that all businesses follow the law.”
“I support fair and consistent enforcement of our state’s no smoking laws,” said City Attorney Pete Holmes. “Hookah lounges cannot continue to operate illegally as smoking establishments. Converting these businesses to a steam stones vaporization model is our best path forward now to bring them into compliance with state and local law. Like every other business, they must also comply with all city laws, including tax and building codes.” The City Attorney’s Office is preparing legislation to license and regulate steam stone hookah lounges that addresses public health and safety concerns, and Holmes “looks forward to receiving input from the Racial Equity Toolkit process to inform the final details of this proposal.” Holmes also supports creating an exemption in the Board of Health Code’s ban on electronic smoking devices to allow vaporizing in adults-only businesses that do not serve alcohol and are locally licensed and regulated. “The common thread is to accommodate vaporizing by adults—which is less dangerous to bystanders than second hand smoke—for both hookah and marijuana lounges, and also in outdoor locations like city parks. I oppose indoor smoking of any substance, including marijuana, hookahs, cigarettes, or cigars.”
Washington state law, enacted by the voters in 2004, prohibits smoking anywhere that is either a public place, a place of employment, or both. The King County Board of Health Code also prohibits the use of “electronic smoking devices” in these same locations. Public Health is the primary agency charged with enforcing no smoking laws locally and treats any indoor location open to the public as a public place, even if the business calls itself a “private club” or charges a cover or “membership fee.” Under the state law and the Board of Health Code, volunteers are employees for purposes of no smoking laws, and the definition of “owner” is an open question.
As a result, Public Health has issued citations and fines to ten of the hookah lounges currently operating in Seattle that it believes are “public places” and in violation of state and local indoor smoking laws. Smoking lounges that are not hookah lounges are also a part of investigations to violations to state and local laws.
These laws, however, do not prohibit “steam stone” hookahs. “Steam stone” hookahs, are a form of vaporizing rather than smoking under state law. A hookah bar using steam stones would not be subject to the private club restrictions and could operate as public places with employees.
The City is also developing a regulatory business license that is being considered by the Mayor and the City Attorney. A regulatory license would be able to address public health and safety concerns including operating hours, age restrictions, and security requirements, among others. The regulatory license and its components will be discussed with community members and stakeholders as part of the Racial Equity Toolkit.