Seattle Mayor Ed Murray says hookah lounges are attracting crime and violence and he wants to shut them down. But some operators say they're not part of the problem.
The city has started cracking down by filing criminal charges against King’s Hookah Lounge in Seattle’s International District, alleging that the operators failed to pay taxes.
Murray says that in the past 18 months there have been three homicides near the business, including the killing of community activist Donnie Chin in July.
Also, the city said Seattle police have responded to more than 100 fights and disturbances associated with hookah establishments since 2012. There have been allegations of alcohol and marijuana use inside.
The city "will no longer tolerate hookah lounges that have been a source of violence and disorder,” Murray said at a press conference Monday.
Nebil Mohammed owns Medina Hookah Lounge in the International District. He says smoking lounges like his are being unfairly targeted.
“I’m a Muslim,” said Mohammed. “I do not sell alcohol, I do not consume alcohol. That’s against my religion. And in the past people have tried to sneak in bottles, and they were banned from the establishment, revoked their membership for life.”
The city says there are 11 hookah lounges in Seattle.
Ahmed Ali, head of the Somali Health Board, said he supports the city's effort and the Somali community has been concerned about youth going to hookah lounges. But shutting down the lounges alone, he said, won’t solve the problem.
“If we shut down this hookah bars, if we shut down these places that they go and have fun, even though from a health perspective we know it’s bad, but what alternatives can we give them?” he asked.
The state has had an indoor smoking ban since 2005, but hookah lounges say they’re exempt because they’re private clubs.
That may not last. A new ordinance that takes effect mid-August will remove that loophole and allow the city to shut down hookah businesses.