Bay Ridge residents request better ventilation systems for local hookah lounges

Bay Ridge community board leaders are considering going door to door to neighborhood hookah lounges and asking owners to install better ventilation systems amid complaints about secondhand smoke.

"It's wonderful to smell people's cooking, but not tobacco and hookah smoke,” said Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10, which includes Bay Ridge. "This is a big problem because you have many elderly people and asthmatics living" above hookah lounges.

Beckmann said the board has received many complaints about some of the nearly 20 hookah lounges that have popped up, primarily along bustling Third and Fifth avenues in recent years.

Neighbors say smoke often seeps into apartments above the lounges, which are among the few indoor establishments in the city where smoking is legal. Local hookah lounge owners contend they already have sufficient ventilators in place, and are in full compliance with city law.

"Cops come in and regularly inspect us,” said Leo Jim, owner of Blow Hookah Lounge on Fifth Avenue. “If you don't have a ventilation system, the Health Department will not give you the necessary certification. It's mandatory.”

Jim blamed secondhand smoke complaints on "my competitors badmouthing me."

Gripes about hookah lounges in Bay Ridge first surfaced about four years ago, Beckmann said. Owners of the lounges banded together and noted hookah smoking is part of their Arab culture.

But medical experts say that hookah smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke pose serious health risks.

Smoke from a hookah contains carbon monoxide, heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals, experts say. That’s because smoke is generated by burning both the tobacco and the charcoal used to fire-up the hookah.

"There are researchers who have walked into hookah lounges and measured elevated particulate matter in the air. This bruises the lungs and damages them," said Dr. Brian King, senior scientific advisor at the Centers for Disease Control's Office on Smoking and Health. "Children are also at increased risk because they have smaller lungs."

Erwin Pineda, 8, who lives with his parents above a former hookah bar on Third Avenue, recalled smelling smoke whenever the lounge opened for business.

"We put perfume in the room so it didn't smell too bad on the first day,” he said. “But the next day, it still smelled bad. All of us were ill after smelling so much smoke."

Erwin and his family’s reprieve may be brief: A new hookah lounge is expected to open in the space soon, according to a sign above the storefront.

While Beckmann is mulling visiting the hookah bars in the neighborhood to demand better ventilation systems, she notes the community board’s limited power.

"There are city laws and state laws. The confusion is which agency will take it under themselves to look into these lounges," she said.

New York's Smoke Free Air Act, passed in 2003, forbids smoking tobacco in public places, except in spaces where tobacco products are sold exclusively. Hookah lounges are not covered by the measure.

City Councilman Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge) will introduce a bill this year to include hookah lounges under the law, said his spokesman, Justin Brannan.

"Hookah bars will then function in step with the city's public health policy," Brannan said.

Ali Muhammad, owner of Your House Cafe, a hookah lounge on Bay Ridge Avenue, said he’s done everything he can to be a good neighbor.

"We had a ventilation system but we did not know that it was not working properly. So a year ago we had a guy to fix our AC and he also fixed our ventilation," said Muhammad. "Now it does not even take 15 minutes for the smoke to go away."