Seattle police and King County health inspectors were ready months ago to clamp down on hookah lounges, modern businesses rooted in ancient Indian and Middle Eastern customs of socially smoking tobacco out of water pipes.
Troubled by indoor smoking, blocked fire exits and shootings near some Seattle lounges, a team of city and county watchdogs scheduled enforcement action against eight clubs on June 22.
A plan calling for officers to write $205 tickets to lounge customers for violating the state’s indoor-smoking ban went all the way to the desk of Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel, who wrote “reviewed and approved.”
But days before the sweep, the city reversed course. Pugel nixed the ticketing, and other city employees — including fire inspectors and nightlife regulators — stood down.
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In emails and interviews, officials in Public Health and the City Attorney’s Office expressed confusion and frustration about who scuttled the long-planned operation and why.
Public-health officials, aware The Seattle Times was preparing a story on the aborted enforcement, went ahead on their own this week. They announced Thursday that six Seattle lounges must stop violating the ban and pay fines or face possible court action.
The lounges, scattered throughout the city, had received multiple warnings, said Dr. David Fleming, director of Public Health — Seattle & King County.
The city’s retreat from the June 22 operation prompted suspicions that election-year politics were the cause, and that Mayor Mike McGinn didn’t want to alienate minority communities that frequented and owned some hookah lounges.
“I just think they got nervous politically,” said Darby DuComb, chief of staff to City Attorney Pete Holmes, who has clashed with McGinn over issues such as downtown crime enforcement.
McGinn, in an interview before the health’s department’s action, said he didn’t cancel city involvement in the June 22 plan, but he agreed with Pugel’s decision to drop ticketing.
McGinn said writing tickets was too heavy-handed, and that the city ought to work with businesses to get them to comply with rules, similar to the way the city works with nightclubs.
“Nightclub owners told us they don’t want to be treated like bad guys. They have as much interest in public safety as anybody,” McGinn said of his policy of dealing with club owners as partners, not enemies. “It seems we should take that approach to hookah lounges.”
McGinn also said the city should be sensitive to cultural issues around hookah lounges, some of which cater to an East African clientele.
Lounge owners and customers, who spoke to The Times before the county’s orders were sent, said the city’s planned ticketing was ill-advised.
Their customers, who consume tobacco often mixed with sweet fruit and candy flavors, are consenting adults who want to smoke in a social setting, owners say.
Patrons are well aware of health hazards involved, said Frank Fu, primary owner of the Night Owl in the University District.
Fu said Thursday he is facing $370 in penalties after the county’s action and is considering whether to appeal. “I am close to just calling it quits,” he said.
Ticketing customers, as was planned in June, would have effectively closed the lounges, said Ahmed Ali, a 21-year-old customer at the Royal Spot Hookah near Yesler Terrace. “They would never come back,” he said of customers.
County health officials said Thursday that the lounges are endangering workers and patrons by violating the 2005 smoking ban passed by voters.
Club owners complain that the city should work with them to regulate what they consider legal, private clubs.
They say the lounges charge a membership fee, usually about $5 for one year, and that they don’t subject employees to secondhand smoke — a violation of the indoor smoking ban — because those who work there are considered part-owners or are family.
The lounges don’t sell alcohol. Nor have there been reports of marijuana smoking inside them, according to city and county officials. But the lounges are open into the early-morning hours — some until 4 a.m. — and tend to attract patrons after bars close.
Officials said the six cited lounges were open to the public, operating similarly to nightclubs that charge a cover fee.
Health experts warn hookah smoking poses a serious hazard. Users may “inhale as much smoke during one session as a cigarette smoker would inhale consuming 100 or more cigarettes,” a 2005 study by the World Health Organization concluded.
“We are very concerned about the high hookah use rates among youth,” Scott Neal, the health department’s tobacco prevention manager, said in a statement Thursday. “Sweet fruit and candy flavors lure youth and help fuel the misperception that hookah smoking is safer than cigarettes.”
Public safety also remains an issue.
Police received 911 calls for gunshots six times in eight months, said Assistant City Attorney Matthew York, who worked closely with police and public-health officials in planning the June 22 operation.
York said he went to a community meeting at Yesler Terrace, where residents complained loudly about the nearby Casablanca Shisha and Royal Spot hookah lounges.
“It is like living close to a badly managed tavern or club,” said Kristin O’Donnell, facilitator for the Yesler Terrace Community Council leadership team. Patrons generate noise, fight and shoot at each other amid loud music, she said.
Just two days after the scrapped enforcement operation, police reported a “significant incident” outside the Royal Spot. Three juveniles entered the lounge, but were asked by owners to leave because they were underage. The trio left, with one making threats while pointing a handgun.
Policy questions also loom. With Initiative 502 legalizing marijuana, city officials question how they can enforce the state law against public consumption of pot when they are allowing hookah lounges to operate. They’re also worried that hookah lounges will morph into pot cafes.
York said he was surprised when other city officials bailed on the June 22 action. The same team had gone out in March and found multiple safety violations. Warning letters later were sent to the lounges, flagging the possibility that patrons could be ticketed. The only thing that had changed was the calendar and intent to write tickets.
“We were asking the chief can we issue a few tickets,” York said. “It would not be in peak hours. We’d allow people to leave.”
Neal, the tobacco-prevention manager, defended the pending operation, telling his superiors in an email it would provide an “educational moment for many more people than just the few that get cited.”
But Pugel, who had approved the plan June 12, said he took a closer look after the department’s media spokesman, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, learned of the operation June 17 and raised concerns. Whitcomb also alerted the mayor’s communications director.
Pugel said he concluded the plan fell outside the department’s mission, posing a risk of unnecessary confrontations with citizens at a time when his officers have come under intense federal scrutiny over the use of excessive force.
“I can’t even remember seeing a ticket for smoking issued by the Seattle Police Department. We don’t do it,” Pugel said. “I think we can all agree this is a low-level nonviolent issue. My concern is we don’t take low-level issues and escalate them into serious ones.”
Officers had raised “significant and documented concerns of violence outside” the lounges, Pugel said. But, he added, “What does smoking inside have to do with our role of guardianship?”
Pugel said it should be the health department’s job to enforce the indoor-smoking law.
He said the decision to cancel ticketing was solely his, but that he didn’t block officers from acting as escorts and doesn’t know why the entire operation fell apart.
Whitcomb said a misunderstanding led others to believe the operation had been scuttled. A police supervisor mistakenly concluded Pugel had called off the entire operation and relayed that information to a detective, Whitcomb said.
The detective told others “we are off entirely” in an email.
But DuComb, the city attorney’s chief of staff, said she believes the entire operation was doomed before that, sunk by pressure from the mayor’s office. She suggested Sahar Fathi in the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs would take much of the credit.
Fathi told a Times reporter she would respond to questions, but then did not follow through.
McGinn, in the interview, said policy questions remain about the treatment of hookahs in light of the legal pot law. “I think … in the area of changing rules and laws we have to move slowly,” he said. “There are also cultural issues. I think we need to have sensitivity about how we deal with these issues.”
On Thursday, McGinn’s spokesman, Robert Cruickshank, declined to comment on the county’s enforcement action. “The action is within the jurisdiction of Public Health,” he wrote in an email.
Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org OnTwitter @steve miletich. Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or email@example.com.