LOS ANGELES — In 2019, local business owners began gathering regularly at Ernie Abramian’s Hookah Lounge on the outskirts of Los Angeles to fight a proposed statewide ban on the sale of flavored tobacco.
From the heavily Armenian neighborhood of Tujunga in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Abramian and other hookah shop and cafe owners began spreading the word that the ban, spurred by a growing epidemic of e-cigarette use among teenagers, could keep them out. business and extinguishes a beloved social ritual that many consider part of their heritage.
“We were going to have collateral damage,” said Abramian, now president of the National Hookah Community Association.
As their agitation grew, business owners hired a lobbyist and traveled to Sacramento to meet with lawmakers. They posted YouTube videos about the “history and centuries-old tradition” of water pipe smoking, popular in the Middle East. Their work paid off: State lawmakers passed the ban in August 2020, which outlawed the sale of flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes — but exempted premium cigars, loose pipe tobacco and “flavored hookah tobacco products” used in hookah pipes.
It never worked. Big Tobacco quickly launched a referendum campaign and gathered enough signatures to bring the issue to the voters. This month, Californians will decide — through Proposition 31 — whether to uphold or block the law, which would make it illegal for brick-and-mortar retailers to sell flavored cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products. The sale of gum or gum that contains nicotine and is not approved by the FDA will also be banned.
If the law is upheld — recent polling suggests a majority of voters likely support it — California would become the second state to rid stores of both flavored vapes and menthol cigarettes, which have deterred millions of black and Latino smokers since tobacco companies began marketing them. Helped half a century ago in inner city neighborhoods.
The question of why California granted an exception to hookah smokers while banning menthol cigarettes, the choice of 85% of African American smokers, has sparked a debate about what tobacco products – if any – qualify for protection. Until recently, attempts to ban menthol had failed in the face of aggressive tactics by tobacco companies, which equated such bans with racism and the war on drugs, saving billions in losses.
Anti-tobacco groups warn that the strategy has become a model for fending off government intervention. They decry hookah concessions as the latest example of a business successfully using identity politics to maintain profits from a deadly product.
“Hookah has been given a pass for no scientific reason,” said Carol McGruder, co-founder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. McGruder, who has waged a war against tobacco companies for their “predatory targeting” of black communities with menthol cigarettes, said hookah smoking has become a growing trend among black youth.
Many young people mistakenly believe hookah smoking is less harmful than other forms of smoking, but experts say waterpipe tobacco is just as addictive as cigarette tobacco and contains the same cancer-causing tar, nicotine and heavy metals.
“They pull out a beautiful antique hookah pipe and they say hookah is for family and community,” McGruder said. “But it’s all for money.”
Big Tobacco itself is attacking the hookah exemption, saying it proves the law discriminates against black and Latino smokers by banning menthol flavors, while giving “special treatment to the wealthy.” advertising campaign Argument to be paid for by art.
“Prop 31 will increase crime and expand illegal markets, reduce revenue for critical services and impact the very people its proponents say they want to help,” said Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the “No on Prop 31” campaign.
More than 360 municipalities, primarily clustered in California and Massachusetts, have restricted the sale of flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarette pods in child-friendly flavors — strawberry, chocolate milk and pink punch — that health officials say provide a gateway to teen smoking. Roughly half of the ordinances restrict menthol, while fewer than 20 – almost all in California – exempt hookah tobacco and/or hookah bars.
In 2021, 80% of high school students and nearly 75% of middle school students who used a tobacco product in the previous 30 days reported using flavored tobacco, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. In 2019 and 2020, an outbreak of vaping-related lung disease, known as EVALI, killed 68 people.
The vaping epidemic has given anti-smoking activists an opportunity to lobby against menthol cigarettes. Invented in the 1920s, their cool, minty flavor helped new smokers adapt to them more easily than unflavored cigarettes, and the industry marketed them as a healthier alternative. In the 1960s, tobacco companies pandered to the black community, offering free samples to hip, young “communicators” in barbershops and bars. Menthol cigarettes account for more than a third of the US$80 billion cigarette market.
Reynolds American, the nation’s largest menthol cigarette maker, including Newport, Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and other civil rights groups fought against the menthol ban. When the New York City Council proposed a menthol cigarette ban in 2019, Sharpton cited the case of Eric Garner, who died in police custody in 2014 after being arrested for selling single, untaxed cigarettes on the street.
But the success of these efforts has come at a devastating price, public health experts say. According to the CDC, African American men have the highest rate of new lung cancer in America.
Earlier this year, the FDA announced a plan to ban the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes, a long-awaited move that was welcomed by health officials and some black leaders, even as they braced for a long legal battle with the tobacco industry that would delay can Banned for several years.
For years, anti-smoking activists have focused on menthol, says Valerie Yarger, associate professor of health policy at the University of California-San Francisco. “No one paid attention to the hookah,” she said.
But water pipe use among young people has increased in recent decades.
In hookah wars across the United States and Europe, contestants compete to build the most elaborate water pipes, often to a hip-hop soundtrack. Elaborate water pipes, with puffs of smoke, often feature prominently in rap videos
“This is another way the industry has found to keep our youth addicted to this product,” Yarger said.
Hookah purveyors argue that blanket bans threaten to wipe out small-business owners, many of whom are immigrants, and a “rich cultural heritage” by effectively banning hookah pipes, which are often part of the gatherings and celebrations of Arabs, Armenians, Persians and others. from the Middle East. They reject claims that their fight is only about money.
“Hookah lounges are a fixture of the community,” said Rima Khoury, general counsel for Fumari, a San Diego-based hookah tobacco company.
For Abramian, hookah smoking was an after-dinner, grown-up ritual that his Iranian-born parents brought with them when they immigrated to America in the 1980s. Decorative water pipes are often several feet long and take at least 20 minutes to set up.
“It’s not something kids smoke in the bathroom at school,” he said. “We don’t want our kids to smoke, but why can’t my grandpa smoke his hookah in his backyard?”
Bible study groups and local Rotary Club chapters meet regularly at his Tujunga Hookah Lounge, Garden on Foothills, which has outdoor gazebos for families and groups. “For Muslims who don’t drink alcohol, or who don’t like going to strip clubs, it’s a safe place,” he said.
The store she runs a few blocks away, Munchies Mart, sells handmade hookah pipes and tobaccos like strawberry lemonade, orange pop, and agua fresca, a far cry from the apple-infused tobacco she remembers her Persian grandmother mixing in her kitchen.
Using cultural practices to argue for public policy concessions is nothing new, says Arnab Mukherjee, associate professor of public health at California State University-East Bay.
But he said communities often suffer when corporate interests “use cultural identities to market a product for mass consumption.”
“You go to any college town,” he said, “and the hookah bars are filled not with practicing Muslims, but with college-age kids who are going to hang out, enjoying bubble gum and cotton candy.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
Contact us Submit a story tip