EL PASO, Texas - - They seem to be popping up all across town, but are smoking lounges a benefit for the economy or a hazard to consumers?
There's been a quiet boom in the number of hookah lounges in the past couple of years. In fact, there are four within a few minutes drive of the ABC 7 studios. That rapid expansion has public health advocates concerned.
"Our main concern with the hookah bars is that some of them are in strip malls, and they share walls with other businesses. What research has shown is that walls are not enough to keep smoke from going between businesses," said Jana Renner with the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation.
The foundation has started looking into issues surrounding smoking lounges. But officials with the city of El Paso say it's already a problem, and indoor smoking facilities in strip malls are already in violation of city ordinances.
"So if they are smoking inside a shared building, that is not permitted," said Elda Hefner, code compliance manager for the city. "Smoking would be prohibited because that is a public building that is attached to other businesses."
The owners of some these businesses disagree and say they're not violating any public building codes. They make it very clear: they operate as private clubs or meeting places, and are exempt from the ordinance's restrictions. Some say they even checked with the city before opening.
Ali Baba's Hookah Lounge opened seven months ago, and owner Rajendra Samant says his lounge does not pose a general health risk.
"The customers that we have though do full willingly know what it is they're doing," Samant said. "At the same time, we sometimes do get groups where some people don't want to smoke hookah, and we don't force them to, we don't ask them to."
For Samant, it's about having a business for people to enjoy themselves. He says they aren't harming anyone in the process.
"You know, for people that know hookah, what hookah is, and what the terminology and all that stuff is, we're not really bothering anybody on that standpoint," Samant said. "This is still a free country, so if you want to smoke, you're more than welcome to. If you don't want to, it doesn't bother us either way."
The El Paso Municipal Code regulations regarding smoking are available online at the city's website.