Hooking up with hookah: What’s happening inside Louisville hookah bars


by Kelsey Starks


Posted on February 12, 2014 at 7:50 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 12 at 7:50 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Metro Louisville may have a smoking ordinance, but there is no hookah ordinance, which could help explain the dozens of hookah lounges popping up around town.  Hookah is hot right now, particularly with the under-21 and college crowd.  But a lot of parents are wondering what is inside.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 40 percent of all college-aged kids in the US have smoked from a hookah.  It is a smoking apparatus that has a charcoal-burning bowl on top and water inside.  The tube that connects to it pulls vapors from inside that allow you to smoke it.

“I think it’s just a new activity,” 19-year-old Matt “Moose” Weisenberger, who says he’s been smoking with friends for about a year, said.  “It’s something you can do with your friends without going to bars.”

As for what happens when you smoke it, most people we talked to say you get a slight buzz similar to smoking a first cigarette.

Dylan Farmer, 19, describes it as a “light-headed buzz.”

“It’s not too much of a different feeling,” he says.  “It just mellows you out, relaxes you… that’s about it.”

People have been relaxing with hookahs like this for centuries.  Its use can be traced back to 16th century Persia.  What’s inside has changed.

“It’s sisha,” Debbie Armstrong, the manager of Café 360 in the Highlands, said.  “It’s herbs.  Some people call it tobacco, but it’s just flavors.”

Although you can buy tobacco for hookahs, only this herbal sisha is allowed inside local hookah lounges because of Louisville’s smoking ordinance.  Sisha is a mix of tobacco-like herbs and dried fruit that comes in dozens of flavors, pre-packaged at most lounges.  As long as it doesn’t contain nicotine-laced tobacco, it isn’t in violation of Louisville’s smoking ordinance.  But there are also plenty of smoke shops and lounges that allow tobacco and other products to be smoked in a hookah.

“I’m not saying kids don’t come in here and try to put pot in here,” Armstrong said.  “Right away we have to take it away and make them leave.  You can tell – it smolders, it smells.  Nobody can get by with putting anything in our hookahs.”

Café 360 has a strict policy against selling herbal hookah to anyone under 18-years-old, as do most other lounges.  But it isn’t a law. 

“What we’re seeing is hookah being more popular, which could be because of lack of regulations around the product,” Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the director of Metro Health and Wellness, said.  Although their Metro agency enforces the tobacco smoking ordinance, they don’t regulate what’s happening in hookah bars unless they have complaints.

“The thing about hookah bars is that the people going there are going there with the intention to smoke hookah,” Dr. Nesbitt said.  “So there have been very few complaints.”

Right now in Louisville there are no restrictions on who can buy herbal hookah.  Any one, any age can legally buy it and smoke it.  Although most hookah lounges regulate themselves and only allow smokers over 18, it isn’t against the law.  And health officials warn it isn’t safe.

“Inhaling something like that on a charcoal disc, still releases carbon monoxide and other toxins,” Dr. Nesbitt said.  “It [is not] a safe practice.  It should not be viewed as a safe alternative to using cigarettes or any other type of drug.”

Dr. Nesbitt says she supports stricter regulations for hookah bars – particularly making it illegal to sell to anyone under 18-years-old.  But for now, it is up to the lounges themselves to card and enforce who is smoking.  While most of them do, those who are smoking it see it as perfectly safe. 

“People are seeing it as an alternative to doing other things,” Weisenberger said.  “Like smoking cigarettes, you don’t do it all the time so you don’t let it become a habit. You just do it every now and then.”

Metro Health and Wellness says they are working on technology that can help them to differentiate tobacco from herbal products inside bars.  As for age restrictions, that would have to be introduced as a city ordinance or state law that, if passed, would be regulated by the health department.