By Angus Loten
For her 27th birthday, Ofelia Virtucio and a dozen friends reserved a private corner of red velvet couches at the Karma Club, a popular hookah bar in the East Village. It was the first time any of them had smoked a hookah, a centuries-old Middle Eastern water pipe filled with fruit-flavored tobacco.
“It’s great, I really love it,” said Virtucio, a student at Hunter College, drawing in the apple-tinged smoke from a long, winding hose. “Plus we can also smoke, I didn’t even know that,” she said, referring to cigarettes.
In the past four years, 200 to 300 new hookah bars have opened across the United States—mostly in California, but also on the East Coast and, most often, near college campuses, according to tobacco industry estimates. In New York alone, there are about 20 hookah bars in the East Village, Brooklyn and Queens.
Like all the hookah bars in the East Village area—there are four within walking distance from Karma—the club is classified as a tobacco bar and exempt from the city’s two-year-old smoking ban. A sandwich board out front proclaims, “You can smoke here,” though inside, the giant, gold hookahs sit unused at most tables. Like Virtucio and her friends, almost everyone is there to smoke Marlboros.
The budding popularity of hookah bars—or shisha cafes as they are known in parts of the Middle East—comes as cities across North American are clamping down on smoking in public places.
Fighting The Law
In New York, smoking has been outlawed in offices, shops, cinemas, theatres, buses, taxis, trains and most restaurants and bars since March 2003. Business owners face fines of up to $250 a day, and can be shut down for repeat offenses. The only exemptions are parts of outdoor cafes, existing cigar bars and drug treatment facilities.
According to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees the bylaw, such bars must earn at least 10 percent of their revenue from the sale of tobacco products and 60 percent from alcohol.
Diana Mollica, Karma’s weekend manager, said the hookahs there bring in about $2,000 a week. The tobacco, which comes in apple, apricot, banana, fruit cocktail, grape and other flavors, is sold by the bowl for $10. Anywhere from 600 to 800 people come through the bar on Saturday night, a noticeable jump in the last two years. As one of only a few dozen bars that allow smoking, it attracts a diverse crowd.
“We get a lot of students, but also the bridge-and-tunnel crowd from Jersey who are used to smoking in bars,” said Mollica, 26.
During the day, the bar doubles as a coffee shop, bringing in a regular group of chain-smoking construction workers.
The bar was converted from an Indian restaurant just over four years ago. The owner, Sam Pande, has kept the restaurant’s red Indian draperies and velvet couches. There’s even a Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, in the smoking lounge.
“Everything here has a Middle Eastern feel to it,” said Mollica, whose dark hair and olive-skin complexion often lead customers to believe she’s the owner’s daughter. She’s actually Sicilian.
Mollica admits that since the smoking ban took effect, smoking cigarettes, and not hookahs, is the biggest draw, calling it a fortunate coincidence.
“We didn’t set out to be a smoking club, to find a loophole, that’s just how it happened,” Mollica said, taking a long draw on her cigarette.
Ironically, the traditional hookah bars in Middle Eastern immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn haven’t benefited from the same loophole that allows smoking in clubs like Karma. Between games of dominoes and backgammon, immigrants from Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world must drag their hookahs out to the sidewalk in sub-zero weather to smoke.
Charges Of Discrimination
Unlike the nightclub hookah bars, the shisha cafes aren’t classified as tobacco bars because, catering to Muslims, they don’t serve alcohol. That’s led to charges of discrimination by groups like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. They see a growing disparity between the treatment of Manhattan tobacco bars, like Karma, and the working-class shisha bars.
City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., from Queens, has been pushing City Hall to rewrite the smoking laws. But after two years there’s still no movement on the issue, said Monica Tarazi, an official with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“I think it’s great that hookahs are catching on, the more the merrier,” Tarazi said, “but this law has a discriminatory aspect to it. It would be terrible if these guys went out of business.”