The 2012 Orange County Smoke-Free Public Places Rule effectively prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants, as well as outdoors in any place owned or maintained by the towns or county. The rule came at the heels of a statewide smoking ban in public places passed in 2010.
Certain places, such as cigar bars, tobacco shops and private clubs, were exempted in the county ban as long as the businesses met specific requirements set by the law.
But hookah bars are not considered tobacco shops.
“We don’t have a specific ban against hookah, but the Orange County ban is as comprehensive as it could be,” said Coby Jansen Austin, tobacco prevention and control officer for the Orange County Health Department. “If there is any place inside where the public is invited or allowed, then the establishment is not allowed to allow smoking.”
Smoking hookah involves heating tobacco mixed with various flavorings. The smoke is passed through water and inhaled through a pipe and a mouthpiece. Hookah bars, which are gaining popularity in many parts of the world, allow customers to puff away either in a room or outdoors. Many restaurants also offer hookah as part of its services.
There are three shops on Franklin Street that sell hookah sets — Hazmat, Expressions and Smoke Rings Smoke Shop. But all three locations do not have smoking rooms or hookah bars. Hookah Bliss, the last known business in the area to offer hookah bars, closed down when the statewide ban was implemented.
Chapel Hill Zoning Enforcement Officer Mike Klein said he has only received one business inquiry about hookah bars in recent years.
For Chapel Hill residents who want to smoke hookah in public, they might have to go to Raleigh or Durham, where rules are less stringent.
UNC senior Lauren Ashley buys hookah sets from Chapel Hill, but she goes to Raleigh to visit the hookah bars.
“I usually go to Paradise (Hookah Lounge) in Raleigh,” Ashley said. “Maybe once every month.”
Shahrazad Hookah Lounge and Coffee in Raleigh is one site that draws visitors from many towns in North Carolina. Customers are free to smoke anywhere.
“I know people come from other cities to visit our hookah bar because we are the biggest in the Triangle,” manager Amber Lilly said. “I used to go to a (hookah) bar in Raleigh and a lot of regulars are from Chapel Hill.”
While many argue that hookah is safer than cigarettes, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention said on its website that hookah smoking is as risky as cigarette smoking. The secondhand smoke from hookahs comes from the burning tobacco and charcoal used to heat the tobacco, therefore posing health risks to nonsmokers.
Austin said Orange County’s strict ban of smoking in public places was made following a comprehensive survey in 2012, public hearings and presentations from involved parties.
“When the state passed the bars and restaurant rule and listed preemptions they enabled us to pass laws that are more restrictive,” Austin said. “What we heard was people wanted us to pass a rule that was more restrictive.”