Clarification (March 24 2:37 p.m.): An earlier version of this story said Hookah Bliss is the only hookah bar in the state that is operating as it did before the indoor smoking ban went into effect. It is the only hookah bar serving both shisha and alcohol that is operating as it did before.
By the end of today, Adam Bliss will owe the Orange County Health Department $600. By the end of the week, he could owe $1,400.
It’s been almost four months since North Carolina’s indoor smoking ban went into effect, and the owner of Chapel Hill hookah bar, Hookah Bliss, is beginning to experience the consequences.
Bliss received his first $200 fine Monday because he’s continuing to let patrons smoke hookah indoors and drink alcohol. He’ll continue to receive $200 fines every day for not coming into compliance, said Tom Konsler, Orange County’s environmental health director.
Hookah bars, where patrons can smoke shisha, or flavored tobacco, through hookahs, violate the indoor smoking bill despite owners’ statewide efforts to gain an exemption.
Bliss would be able to keep serving hookah if he stopped serving alcohol. He said he can’t afford to do that, but he can’t afford the fines, either.
He’s about to enter an appeal process, but until then he is considering suspending beer sales.
The N.C. Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch outlines how the law should be enforced. After a health department receives indoor smoking complaints, they send a series of violation notices to the business.
But after the warnings, local health departments can decide how to continue enforcement.
Konsler said he received a complaint about Hookah Bliss last week. Bliss had already received three violation notices, so the department gave Bliss his first $200 fine. Konsler said Bliss will continue to be charged $200 every day he stays open.
Initially, a department official visited the hookah bar to validate each complaint. Not necessary anymore, Konsler said.
“He has stated that as long as he’s operating, he’s going to be allowing smoking tobacco products,” Konsler said. “So it’s a very safe assumption that each day he’s open, he’s in violation.”
But David Rice, health director of New Hanover County Health Department, is handling the fine process with Wilmington hookah bar Juggling Gypsy differently, issuing citations after each new complaint. Since mid-February, Juggling Gypsy has received three fines.
Rice said he thinks it should be up to local health departments to decide how to enforce.
For now, Juggling Gypsy has turned to non-tobacco hookah products.
“This is not us bowing down,” owner Sebastian Gomez said. “This is us sidestepping the entire process until we can get it seen in court.”
Konsler said it’s Bliss’s responsibility to call the department to inform them when he is in compliance. Until then, Bliss will keep accumulating fees.
Bliss said he plans to call the department every day to say he’s following the law so they’ll have to send someone to the hookah bar to check.
“As long as they’re going to fine me $200 a day, I might as well have someone out here every day,” he said. “Why suddenly has it become my job to police myself?”
Jim Martin, director of policy and programs at the N.C. Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch, said both New Hanover and Orange counties are well within their rights of enforcing the law.
“Each county has the discretion to work with county attorneys to determine how the $200 is assessed,” he said.
He said about half of the state’s hookah bars don’t sell alcohol or food and weren’t affected by the law. Most others have adjusted by stopping the sale of alcohol and food or by offering a different type of non-tobacco product to smoke, he said.
Hookah Bliss is now the only hookah bar in the state that serves both shisha and alcohol that is operating as it did before the indoor smoking ban went into effect.
“I’d rather close than sell non-tobacco shisha,” Bliss said. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
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