Seattle Declares War On Hookah Lounges The legal justification for this crackdown is the state's ban on indoor smoking in public places, but the reasons go beyond smoking. The city says the lounges are also magnets for crime.

Seattle Declares War On Hookah Lounges

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Seattle has declared war on hookah lounges. Also known as nargile or shisha, depending on where you are in the world. Hookahs are Middle-Eastern water pipes used for smoking flavored tobacco. They and the lounges have caught on in some parts of the U.S. Hookah smokers risk cancer, of course, but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, Seattle also believes the lounges are magnets for violent crime.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The legal justification for this crackdown is the state's ban on indoor smoking in public places, but the reasons go beyond smoking. Ed Murray is Seattle's mayor.


ED MURRAY: There have been more than 100 fights and disturbances, and of the 11 hookah establishments that we know exist in city limits, there have been shootings outside of four of them. Three of those shootings have been homicides.

KASTE: In fact, the mayor's crackdown came soon after the late-night shooting death of Donnie Chin. He was an anti-crime activist in Seattle's International District - that's Chinatown. There's still flowers on the sidewalk where he died. The spot is near a hookah lounge that's become a source of annoyance in this mainly-Asian neighborhood. Teresita Batayola runs a health services center at the same intersection. And she says Donnie Chin had been keeping an eye on the hookah lounges.

TERESITA BATAYOLA: He said after the club closed, people were congregating outside those clubs, if you will, and that they had arms.

KASTE: The police are still investigating Chin's death. But the city's implication is clear - hookah lounges are trouble.


KASTE: But here's where things get complicated politically - these hookah bars are hangouts for young Somalis and Ethiopians, people who say they often feel left out socially. Ahmed Washuge has just ordered himself a hookah flavored with orange, guava and mint.

AHMED WASHUGE: I can't imagine that being taken away from me, you know?

KASTE: He's not talking about the hookah so much as the scene - a room full of youngish people sitting in deep armchairs playing cards and dice games. A lot of the customers say they're here because there's no alcohol and it's an alternative to the bar scene. And most of them are recent immigrants. Washuge thinks that's a factor in the current crackdown.

WASHUGE: Most of the East Africans or Middle Eastern have hookah bars. And I feel like, you know, it's more like a race thing. That's what I think.

KASTE: And this argument's catching on. Just in the last few days, civil rights leaders who barely knew what a hookah was have now rallied to the cause. On Monday, the issue triggered a Black Lives Matter chant during the city council meeting. Attorney James Bible was one of those attacking the policy.


JAMES BIBLE: And that is the law and that's what they did. And ultimately what we have here is a perception that black people are criminals, violent and dangerous. And what the mayor did was demonstrate that not only black lives don't matter to him, but black votes don't seem to either.


KASTE: But lost in this anger is the fact that many East African parents don't like the hookah lounges. They worry about what their kids are up to there, and some of them have asked for them to be closed. But now their leaders are hedging, saying they're also not eager to run anyone out of business. Seattle's liberal Irish-American mayor, meanwhile, insists that this is not about discrimination.


MURRAY: You know, if we have a bunch of Irish pubs in this city where people - young people - are being shot and murdered outside of, I'll close them down. What we have right now is a situation that is clearly connected to a certain type of business, and we've got to act.

KASTE: Other American cities have closed hookah lounges based mainly on anti-smoking laws. But now that Seattle has added public safety to the mix, the mayor here faces some politically toxic blowback over race. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.