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S.F. Health Officials Seek Closure

Head tipped back, Husam Al Saffar watched smoke cigarettes billow from his open mouth. Upward the clouds curled, tracing a scented trail of strawberries and tobacco.

The 28-year-old San Jose man puffed again on his pipe, which drew from the base of a bubbling hookah. Then he passed it to his friends, who were sprawled atop pillows and nodding to hip-hop music.

The evening was off to a familiar start at Cairo Nights, one of several hookah lounges that offer San Franciscans a honeyed, fruit-soaked taste of the Middle East.

But these establishments could soon go up in smoke.

Public health department officials are threatening to shut down hookah lounges, whose owners, they say, have refused to obey state and local laws that ban indoor smoking cigarettes, despite mailed and in-person warnings over the past year.
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The noose is starting to tighten on the estimated 17 hookah lounges operating in the city. The owners of Cafe Chanta, Cairo Nights, Kan Zaman, Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant and Dream Hookah Lounge are scheduled to appear in public hearings before the department starting this week.

If hookah doesn't come off the menu, these places could face fines of up to $500 and eventual closure - and the city is willing to take the matter to court, said Janine Young, senior environmental health inspector for the health department.

"I get phone calls from people who choose not to smoke, but they smell smoke," she said. "I get phone calls from people who have respiratory problems. I get phone calls from people who have small children."

But those who run the local hookah lounges say they find the rules bewildering and will resist to the end. At risk, they say, is an essential aspect of the city's nightlife and ethnic customs.

"You come here to smoke," said Khaled Hegazy, who runs Cairo Nights at 829 Geary St. "If you don't want to smoke, stay away."
'It's just really relaxing'

On a recent evening, the yellow walls of Cairo Nights pulsated with the percussion of reggaeton beats. Candles and a wide-screen television threw shafts of light over woven rugs and round tables. Young urbanites, professionals and Middle Easterners, their faces obscured by shadows, chattered and sucked in lungfuls of citrus-tinged smoke.

"The music's great. I like the atmosphere. There's a lot of people," said Anthony Farnsworth, 20, of Santa Rosa, who had gathered with friends for a few rounds of lemon mint- and sex-on-the-beach-flavored hookah. "It's just really relaxing."

Since the 1990s, the city and state have prohibited smoking cigarettes inside enclosed workplaces, including restaurants, bars and taverns. But because the policy did not specifically say whether hookah lounges fell into those categories, some continued operating as usual.

In March 2010, the Board of Supervisors amended the city's antismoking cigarettes law. Smoking was banned in restaurants, which were defined as businesses with permits to serve food.
Lounges denied exemption

Most of the city's hookah lounges fall under that umbrella - even if they serve hookah and food at different times, or don't serve food and drinks at all but still hold the permits, Young said. Some are also considered in violation because they are under apartments, putting those residents at risk of breathing secondhand smoke.

Last year, four hookah lounges requested exemptions from the law. All were denied, Young said.

The smoking cigarettes ban means no new hookah lounges can open. Over the past two years, the city has turned down 200 people interested in setting up shop, according to the Office of Small Business.

Hookahs are thought to derive from pipe-smoking cigarettes practices in Turkey, India and the Middle East as far back as the 17th century. Crafted as often ornate structures of glass, metal and brass, hookahs heat up tobacco smoke, then filter it through cold water.

Businesses and promoters of local nightlife have accused the city government of waging a "war on fun." Ted Strawser, who founded the San Francisco Party Party to protest what he saw as the suburbanization of the city, said the crackdown on hookah lounges sounded misdirected.

"Are these things really a risk?" he said. "Give me a break."

Hookah lounges may be able to stay open if they dump the smoking cigarettes and convert to, say, simply food and drinks. But some worry they won't be able to make the switch.

Bara Nassr, who owns Old Jerusalem Cafe in the Inner Sunset, said hookah drives 75 percent of his business. "People are smoking cigarettes cigarettes," he said. "Ban that first and kick Philip Morris out of business first. Then come after the small people."

Supervisor Eric Mar, who sponsored last year's ordinance that clarified the antismoking cigarettes law, said he purposely refrained from mentioning hookah lounges.

"We had some sensitivity to small businesses," he said, "but if they are not following state law, it is the responsibility of the Department of Public Health to figure out ways for them to comply."
Reminder of home in Iraq

The possibility of closures alarmed Al Saffar, who was recently relaxing at Cairo Nights after a day's work at Fry's Home Electronics. Hookah is a warm reminder of home - the Muslim country of Iraq.

"We don't have bars," he said. "We go to hookah lounges and have discussions about sports, news, whatever's happening in our countries."

And with that, he exhaled.

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