Any night of the week at either of the two Paymon's Mediterranean Cafés, the hookah lounges are full of men and women, college students, people of all ethnicities. The same scene is played out in Las Vegas' other hookah lounges: Azuza Hookah & Fine Teas, Town Square's Nu Sanctuary Lounge, Maharaja Hookah Café, and countless others.
Hookahs have a long, rich history as a social activity, dating back to 16th century Persia. Both then and today, people gather in cafes and coffee houses throughout the Arab world, socializing and relaxing, just as they do in Las Vegas.
Now, however, the government has decided that this successful experiment in multiculturalism must come to an end, and come to an end for reasons that don't make any logical sense.
Having already passed a no-smoking law in 2006 on the grounds that children were being put at risk by smoky bars and casino floors, the Southern Nevada Health District has now turned its attention to a far less ubiquitous pastime: hookahs.
While the county used taxpayer dollars to mount its assault on public cigarette, pipe and cigar smoking with a massive advertising campaign, it failed to make clear that the passage of the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act would result in a wave of kitchens being closed and hundreds of people losing their jobs and being tossed onto the streets. Apparently not satisfied with that economic damage, the health district is now seeking to recreate the same havoc on a sector of Las Vegas dominated by immigrants simply seeking to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Today, the Southern Nevada Health District has teamed up with an out-of-state marketing firm (our government couldn't spend our money here at home hiring Las Vegans, apparently) to launch an all-out attack on hookah lounges. That company, Rescue Social Change Group, LLC, out of San Diego made $2.4 million in 2009, according to Inc. Magazine. No figures exist for the mom-and-pop restaurants and cafes that offer hookahs in Las Vegas, but rest assured, it falls far short of seven figures.
Las Vegas' hookah lounges serve grown-ups who, one would hope, are perfectly capable of making their own choices without the intervention of the government or marketing agencies from California. In the expensive pamphlets, radio ads and even more expensive television advertising blitz, Clark County taxpayers are paying for outlandish comparisons of hookahs to smoking cigarettes. The deceptive materials state that, "During a typical one-hour hookah session, a person inhales as much smoke as 100 cigarettes. That's like five packs of cigarettes in one hour."
According to one of the largest manufacturers of hookah tobacco, the Sahara Smoke Co., the dry tobacco weight in hookah tobacco is only 20 percent of the wet product. Thus, the actual comparison would equate to approximately 100 grams of cigarette tobacco versus 3.2 grams of tobacco in a hookah bowl.
As well, anyone who has ever been to a hookah lounge, whether it be here, in the Middle East, India, Nepal or Southeast Asia, will attest they have never seen one person use a hookah for an entire hour without a break. Unlike smoking cigarettes, partaking in hookahs is a group experience, with the hose passed from person to person, each with his or her own personal, disposable mouthpiece. Unlike cigarettes, there has never been, in the history of the world, a hookah chain-smoker.
One key reason for this is the lack of additives in hookah tobacco. Phillip Morris lists 146 additives in its cigarettes made for consumption in Mexico. (Information on cigarettes made for U.S. consumption is readily available.) Hookah tobacco is made of natural tobacco, honey or molasses and natural flavoring, such as fruit and fruit extracts. Because heating this mixture doesn't result in much smoke, food-grade vegetable glycerol is used to increase the amount of vapor for the visual effect.
Because hookah tobacco isn't burned but is heated, the plant material is much safer. One of the many lies being put forth by the health district is that hookah smoke contains 36 times the amount of tar found in cigarette smoke. What the health district forgets to mention is that tar comes from burning tobacco, not heating it.
Unlike a cigarette smoker who is forced to deeply inhale the burning tobacco to get his fix, people who enjoy hookahs let the flavored smoke roll in their mouth before exhaling, rarely if ever breathing it deeply into their lungs.
Afterward, hookah tobacco is still completely present in the bowl. The top is toasted, but after that first layer, the rest is untouched. Cigarette tobacco has been completely burned and turned into ash.
As for nicotine, there is a tiny fraction of it present in hookah tobacco versus cigarette tobacco. As the smoke passes through the hookah's water chamber, the amount of nicotine is dramatically decreased.
Is it any wonder, then, that neither the health district nor its hired guns out of San Diego can cite a single, controlled U.S. laboratory clinical study to back up their assertions?
This is a case of nanny statism at its worst. Instead of worrying about bankrupt county services that truly help people and which are in danger of closing, the government is trying to close down a handful of small businesses. To the Southern Nevada Health District and its Californian cronies: stick your expensive, deceitful ad campaign in your pipe and smoke it.
Jeff Ecker is corporate general manager of Paymon's Mediterranean Café and Hookah Lounge.