Should this be legal? Dickinson commissioners consider anti-hookah ordinance, but say more information is needed
City Commission members are weighing options for a possible hookah bar in Dickinson, but the idea could be up in smoke before it even starts.
City Administrator Shawn Kessel told commissioners Monday that he has been getting requests for hookah bars to be built in town, but wanted to gauge members’ “desires as they relate to hookah bars.”
“Is that a business model you’d like to see in the community?” he asked.
An unnamed caller reached out to Kessel on Monday afternoon asking for information about how to open the city’s first hookah bar, where patrons could gather to smoke from the water pipes that originated in the Middle East but have become popular throughout the world — just not North Dakota.
“A hookah bar is an interesting term,” Kessel told the commission. “It goes back a long ways, and it has its roots in the Orient. And I had to look this up online, because I wasn’t exactly sure.”
The state’s first and only hookah bar, Dreas Hookah Lounge in Grand Forks, closed last month as a result of the 2012 ban on smoking in worksites and public spaces.
Any hookah bar in Dickinson would be able to serve only herbal products in lieu of the traditional shisha, or flavored tobacco.
Aside from the state smoking law, there are no other legal barriers to opening a hookah bar in the city.
“We can’t deny them,” Kessel said. “And if it’s in the interest of the City Commission to do so, I’m here to tell you that the city staff does not have that ability.”
The only way to put the kibosh on hookah would be to draft an ordinance to block the practice and hold a public hearing with input from community members.
“To get the process going, you either have to have an ordinance saying we’re going to allow these and the conditions we’re going to allow them on,” Mayor Dennis Johnson said Monday, “or you could draft an ordinance saying we’re not going to allow them, and then you get whole public comment and discussion.”
He added that he hasn’t “thought a whole lot about hookah bars.”
In an interview, Johnson said he “didn’t get the sense that anyone at the commission table knows a whole lot about the issue.”
He added: “We would rather get much better educated on it.”
Commission member Klayton Oltmanns said in an interview that there weren’t strong feelings among the commission either for or against a hookah bar, but that more information is needed before a decision is made.
“It is new to each of us as commissioners,” he said. “Just to get ahead of the game, we’re going to issue an ordinance. We’ll be able to gauge the community’s response — pro or con — and make a good informed decision based on what the community says.”
At least one community member would support the ban: Jennifer Schaeffer, tobacco prevention coordinator at Southwest District Health, said hookah smokers face numerous health risks, whether the pipes are packed with tobacco or herbs.
“Anytime you smoke something into your lungs, you’re putting your lungs and heart at risk,” she said. “We’re concerned about that.”
Hookah smoke contains nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide like cigarette smoke, and is at least as toxic, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Schaeffer said she would support the City Commission if it issued an ordinance banning the practice in Dickinson.
“As a health unit, as a tobacco prevention program, we wouldn’t be in support of having hookah bars,” she said.
But talks about the potential hookah bar are in their earliest stages, and Oltmanns said there is “still too little info” to take any definite stance yet.
City Attorney Matthew Kolling and city administration would first have to draft the ordinance, at which point it would go through a first reading and public comment. Oltmanns said the topic is expected to come up again in a June commission meeting.
“Any ordinance in its initial reading isn’t necessarily how it ends beyond that,” Oltmanns said, adding the city wants to hear a response from residents and businesses before it makes a decision.