North Denver’s sole hookah lounge closed for business on Nov. 26 when the City’s Department of Excise and Licenses issued it a $600 fine and warned owners not to reopen until its pending license application is approved. Highland Hookah Lounge owner Hamza Alfukaha says the business is unlikely to ever reopen, citing unclear delays in the licensing process and two nearby residents who had told him they hoped to shut his business down.
According to Eric Escudero, Director of Communications for the Department of Excise and Licenses at the City and County of Denver, “Denver alerted retail tobacco businesses that a retail tobacco store license is required and if they did not have an application for a license by July 1 they would be required to stop selling tobacco. Before the ordinance went into effect on July 1, 2021, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) conducted significant outreach to tobacco providers to notify them of the new license requirements. Information was mailed to these businesses on at least two occasions before July 1 detailing the process for obtaining a license. Additionally, DDPHE investigators conducted in-person outreach over the summer by visiting establishments and speaking with managers to ensure they understood the licensing requirements.”
Escudero confirmed that Highland Hookah Lounge has a pending application, “but since they applied after July 1, they are required to stop selling tobacco. If their license is approved, they would be eligible to restart their operations. Their license is pending and under review.”
In addition to the Nov. 26 fine from Denver Excise and Licenses, Alfukaha and his partner Dalal Qudsi had their hands full with two Denver City Council bills that threatened to curtail Denver’s 14 hookah businesses. And, according to Councilmember Amanda P. Sandoval’s office, neighbors near the location at West 32nd Avenue and Vallejo Street had expressed concerns about late-night safety issues stemming from the business.
On Nov. 16, Denver City Council unanimously passed a measure that now requires hookah lounges to close between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. The change was brought forth by Councilmember Jolon Clark, who cited numerous 911 calls and 311 complaints across the city. His district includes a swath of South Broadway where a handful of hookah lounges have attracted numerous issues, such as gun violence, public intoxication, fighting, urination, parking issues such as peeling out or blocking streets, and bottle throwing. One of the most egregious businesses on South Broadway was shut down this year through the City’s nuisance abatement process.
Prior to this new legislation, hookah lounges fell outside city regulations on closing hours that apply to bars and marijuana consumption sites. Operating a hookah lounge requires a retail tobacco license—which disallows sales to anyone under 21 years old—but licensing does not impact a retailer’s hours of operation. An establishment, depending on its offerings, may require an additional cabaret (live entertainment) or liquor license. In the absence of limits, a few of Denver’s hookah lounges had opted to stay open as late as 4 or 5 a.m.
Highland Hookah Lounge opened its doors over the summer and initially remained open until 4 a.m. But Alfukaha quickly encountered after-hours nuisance issues. Patrons who arrived drunk after nearby bars closed were hard to control and he didn’t like how it influenced his business and his staff. After his first month in operation he began issuing last call at 1:30 a.m. and closing at 2 a.m. Alfukaha was concerned, though, about Clark’s midnight closing time proposal. A third to half of his nightly revenue was generated between midnight and 2 a.m.
Councilmember Amanda P. Sandoval recounts her office’s involvement: “Neighbors who live near the Highland Hookah Lounge (HHL) contacted my office in September with serious concerns for their safety due to activity that was taking place at HHL, for instance shots fired at 4 a.m., and operating as an unlicensed night club and many other issues. I was able to convene a meeting with neighbors, a representative of HUNI RNO, City Attorney’s, the Department of Excise & Licenses, DPD, the owner of Saffron Grill and the owner of HHL. I am not aware of any encounters with neighbors who focused on shutting down the business, but I am aware of neighbors who were interested on working with the owner to ensure their safety and the safety of the neighborhood was a priority. I heard directly from neighbors that they support small local business and welcome new businesses, but shots fired in the middle of the night, and creating an unsafe environment was very concerning and not something anyone wants. I am committed to working with DPD, other city agencies, business owners and my constituents when issues such as these arise, and safety of our community will always be one of my biggest priorities.”
Denver’s hookah lounges would also have been impacted by a second tobacco-related measure recently taken up by Denver City Council: a citywide ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products. Hookah tobaccos are formulated using a variety of flavors. But the flavored tobacco bill’s sponsors, Councilmembers Amanda Sawyer and Debbie Ortega, added an exemption for hookah lounges in November (see related story on page 6).
Alfukaha is moving forward with plans to open a hookah lounge in Aurora. He’s exploring other business ideas outside of Denver as well, including one offering transportation and services for children with disabilities.
For those unfamiliar with hookah, the National Hookah Community Association describes it as a “cultural tradition practiced by Middle Eastern, Armenian, Turkish, Indian, Persian and North African minority communities and is the centerpiece for social and celebratory events.” Its origins date back to the 16th century and it’s a popular social activity, especially among groups that do not consume alcohol. The hookah pipe (also known as shisha or waterpipe) can stand up to three feet tall and consists of multiple components, often ornately decorative. Various flavored tobaccos, in formulations specific to waterpipes, are available. They can be smoked alone but, prior to COVID-19, were more typically shared. COVID-19 has brought new practices for shared smoking such as disposable mouthpieces and hoses.
Hookah waterpipe smoking, alongside being a valued cultural tradition, has been established to put smokers at risk for the same kinds of diseases known to be caused by cigarette smoking. The FDA, Mayo Clinic and American Lung Association maintain that hookah waterpipes are not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking. According to the American Lung Association, “Long-term effects include impaired pulmonary function, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, esophageal cancer and gastric cancer. Short-term hookah use is associated with acute health effects, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, reduced pulmonary function, and carbon monoxide intoxication.”