"I’m just wondering, what I’m hearing right now about hookah, whether or not this remains within the scope of protecting under-21 youth access," Councilwoman Jamie Torres said during the October 6 Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness committee meeting that focused on the proposed flavor ban co-sponsored by Amanda Sawyer and Debbie Ortega.
The committee wound up postponing a vote on the proposal to October 27.
"I think the intent to bringing this back to committee would be to discuss potential amendments such as a hookah exemption or the 21+ restrictions, things like that," said Councilman Kevin Flynn.
The possibility of adding a loophole for hookah tobacco represents a tentative victory for Denver hookah lounge owners and other hookah industry stakeholders, who have been lobbying councilmembers in recent weeks.
"These are three to four feet tall. You cannot vape out of them," George Johnson, a founding member of the California-based National Hookah Community Association who started his hookah pipe business in Boulder, said over Zoom while gesturing to some of his wares in the background. "You cannot conceal this from your parents. This is not the problem, yet we are the collateral damage in the effort to prevent access of youth to vaping products."
Soaked in molasses, hookah tobacco is almost always flavored, giving the person on the receiving end of a water pipe a tasty smoke to inhale. Smoking hookah is popular around the world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
Denver has been exploring a flavored-tobacco and vaping ban for years. Mayor Michael Hancock initially considered pushing a proposal, but then decided it would be better for state lawmakers to take up the issue. When they didn't, Sawyer and Ortega picked up the cause, with support from Hancock administration staffers.
"The biggest area of concern for us is that one in five kids uses vape products regularly," says Tristan Sanders, public-health manager at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, citing data from a Healthy Kids Colorado survey. And eight in ten kids who vape use flavored products, according to the Food and Drug Administration. "What these kids are interested in, and why they're using these products, kind of centers around them being flavored and attractive to kids," he adds.
Sawyer and Ortega have framed their proposal, which has been pushed by a wide range of groups, such as the American Heart Association, Kaiser Permanente and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, as a way to prevent youth from becoming hooked on nicotine mainly through flavored vapes, but also through other products.
"The proposal on the table is a flavor ban because it’s not just flavored vape products. It’s flavored products of all different kinds that kids will access," Sawyer said during the October 6 committee hearing. "Hookah is becoming increasingly popular amongst youth who are not well-informed."
But hookah proponents launched their own information campaign with councilmembers.
"It seems like there are a few problems that have been identified. One is kids vaping and also African-American people smoking menthol cigarettes. But then we’re also including hookah and pipes and chewing tobacco and cigars," said Councilwoman Kendra Black. "As policymakers, we always have to be very clear on what the problem is and very clear on what the solution is and how it’s going to address the problem."
Smoking hookah is not nearly as popular as vaping with youth in the U.S. Still, "nearly 1 in every 13 (7.8%) high school students in the United States had used a hookah to smoke tobacco during the previous year," according to 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. "Although many users think it is less harmful, studies have shown that hookah smoke contains many of the same harmful components found in cigarette smoke, such as nicotine, tar, and heavy metals," the CDC notes on its website.
For their part, Sawyer and Ortega indicated that they are not interested in carving out any exemptions. "Once we open the door for one thing, we open the door for all things," Sawyer told the committee.
During the hearing, Ortega described a friend whose husband is Iranian. "They typically get [their hookah tobacco] directly from Iran," she said. "They order online. And that’s where they get them from. Others that I have talked to have indicated that’s where they also get their tobacco product that they use for their hookah pipes. So not everybody goes to a hookah bar to get their tobacco."
Local hookah lounge owners agree that some individuals do smoke hookah at home, but say that many more patronize their businesses.
"I have people who, they work, they left work at ten, they come here, they mix together in the same place, smoke a hookah, have a pot of tea, and they go on with their life," says Hassan, the owner of Casablanca Hookah Lounge in southeast Denver.
Immigrants are particularly interested in lounges. "Muslims who come to this country, they don't go to bars, they don't go to strip joints. The only place that they can go to, and religion permitting, is a hookah lounge. Those are social places for those people," explains Hrant Vartzbedian, executive director of the National Hookah Community Association, which has more than ten members in Denver. Hookah stakeholders successfully fought for a hookah tobacco exemption when the California legislature recently passed a statewide flavor ban, and Vartzbedian is now lobbying Denver councilmembers.
"We're just seeking to make them understand what this is," Vartzbedian says. "Some of them don't know the history of hookah. We cannot influence them in any way...[but] I think it was worth a try."