Beneath the trendy Tabaq restaurant in the U Street corridor lies a hookah bar, a remaining legal refuge for smokers of a different kind.
The District’s smoking ban went into effect last week, snuffing out smokers in almost all the city’s bars, restaurants and hotels. But for bars that feature the ancient Middle Eastern water pipe, known as a hookah or shisha pipe, along with cigar bars, the new law does not prohibit them from catering to tobacco loyalists.
“I want to make sure if somebody wants to smoke, we can give them a place to do it,” said Omer Buyukbayrak, who owns Tabaq. “And it’s an important part of the business.”
As cities across the country clamp down on smoking in public areas, hookah bars are growing in popularity. The District has at least seven hookah bars and many restaurants that offer the pipes as an after-dinner treat.
In the past five years, 200 to 300 hookah bars have opened nationwide, mostly in California, but also in New York and most often near college campuses, according to tobacco industry estimates.
Ehab Asal, owner of the Prince Cafe, which has multiple locations in the Washington area that offer hookah pipes, said the exemption for hookah bars is fair.
“The hookah goes with the atmosphere of Indian and Turkish cuisine,” he said. “It is part of the experience of coming to the restaurant.”
Because hookah pipes are considered almost essential to the existence of the bars, D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, authored the exemption in the smoking-ban legislation.
“The smoking ban is not intended to be a prohibition,” Mr. Graham said. “There are places that smoking is so implicit that it ought to exist. If you banned smoking in places like hookah bars, you may as well close them down,” he added.
The exemption is granted to cigar and hookah bars if they rely on tobacco sales for at least 10 percent of their revenue. Other existing businesses can apply for a waiver if they prove the ban imposes an “economic hardship.” Future establishments are not applicable for an exemption.
Mr. Graham represents the Adams Morgan neighborhood, which contains at least three hookah bars. He said he is concerned about health effects of the secondhand smoke from the water pipes but thinks hookah bars are different from traditional watering holes.
“There is an element of consent so much greater if you’re going to a cigar bar or hookah bar, you know what you’re getting into. At bars, people go for other reasons, but these places are built around smoking,” he said.
Unlike the traditional cigarette, hookahs offer an assortment of flavors, ranging from apple to coconut. The tobacco in a hookah is held in a bowl near the top of the pipe, kept lit by a red-hot charcoal. The smoke is drawn through water — giving the smoke a smooth feel — before being sucked through a long tube. A pipe can have as many as six tubes, which makes smoking out of a hookah a more communal experience than puffing on the solitary cigarette.
At Prince Cafe in Georgetown, patrons pay $10 for the use of a hookah pipe all night and about $10 for one hit of the tobacco, which will last about 45 minutes.
Ken Chin, an investment analyst at the International Finance Corp. at the World Bank, is a young professional who plays soccer in the spring and fall and stays away from cigarettes. He does, however, enjoy smoking double-apple-flavored tobacco from hookah pipes at Gazuza in Dupont Circle.
“I know it’s bad for me, but there is something very relaxing about being in the hookah bar environment,” he said. “It’s a social thing.”
Mr. Chin, who has been smoking from hookah pipes for three years, points out that there is a difference between smoking a cigarette in a restaurant and smoking a hookah pipe.
“I think they should be exempted. If someone is smoking in a restaurant, it’s hard to get up and leave,” he said.
However, cigarette smoking is allowed in hookah bars under the law.
Research on the health effects of smoking tobacco from hookahs is scarce, but the American Cancer Society says the tobacco in a water pipe is just as dangerous as tobacco found in a Marlboro.
Tom Glenn, a researcher at the society, warns that the fruit-scented tobacco and social aspect associated with the hookah pipe belies the potential for serious health problems.
“By smoking a hookah pipe, people are opening the door to the same carcinogens and risks that cigarettes have,” he said. “It’s beguiling because of the smooth taste and nice atmosphere, but the nicotine is just as powerful.”
Mr. Glenn worries that the popularity of hookah bars will rise along with more citywide and statewide smoking bans.
“It’s something we’re keeping an eye on and watching more closely these days.”