In front of the pale tower of Los Angeles City Hall, Janet Azhand delivered an impassioned speech in Farsi, surrounded by hookah sellers bearing signs that urged officials to “Save Hookah” and “Preserve Our Culture.”
“Hookah is not vape,” Azhand, who works for a hookah lounge, later told a reporter in English. “They don’t understand.”
In Los Angeles, the push to rid store shelves of tobacco products infused with sweet, minty or fruity flavors has run into opposition from hookah sellers, who argue it could destroy a cherished tradition among Armenians, Arabs and other communities in which hookah has been a centerpiece of gatherings and celebrations.
Under the proposal, L.A. could ban businesses from selling many flavored tobacco products, a move meant to stop teens from getting hooked on nicotine. A coalition of youth and public health advocates backing the ban argues that flavored products have lured more teens to use tobacco, including by vaping with electronic cigarettes.
Fruity, sweet and smooth flavors are “the new and attractive delivery system to get kids hooked to nicotine,” Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said at a city hearing a year and a half ago. “And that is evil. There’s no question about it.”
The last time the issue was heard at City Hall over a year ago, council members suggested allowing some sales of flavored tobacco for consumption on site at lounges, but hookah sellers say the plan is still too restrictive and would not allow lounges to be passed down to future generations. Nor would it allow people to buy hookah tobacco to smoke at home.
For Muslims who don’t drink for religious reasons, “they can’t go to a bar to socialize,” said Hrant Vartzbedian, executive director of the National Hookah Community Assn. Vartzbedian said “the hookah lounge is a safe place for them” — a place where new immigrants go to make friends, find work, maybe even meet a future spouse.
At the last hearing, council members also suggested exempting some menthol cigarettes amid concerns about unfairly affecting Black consumers, who are disproportionately likely to smoke products flavored with the minty compound.
As hookah sellers gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday morning, groups opposed to banning menthol cigarettes rallied nearby, holding up signs that read “Exempt One Exempt All” and “Hookah is Cultural … Menthol is Not?” Pastor William Smart Jr., president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, argued it was unfair to ban menthols favored by Black smokers while allowing other cigarettes to continue to be sold.
“The ban on menthol is singling out people of color,” argued Olivia Barbour, a 71-year-old resident of the Westmont neighborhood. “If they’re so concerned about our health, ban it all” — all kinds of tobacco, she said.
Backers of the proposed ban, including the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society, have argued against any exemptions for menthol or hookah tobacco, insisting that an across-the-board ban on flavored tobacco is needed to thwart youth addiction.
“Candy-, fruit- and mint-flavored products are enticing kids into a potential lifetime of addiction to tobacco,” said Primo J. Castro, an L.A.-area spokesman for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “We need bold action to address this epidemic. We need to rid store shelves of flavored tobacco — and that includes all flavors and all products.”
Although some community groups have opposed efforts to ban menthol as discriminatory, others argue that the real problem is the tobacco industry preying on Black consumers. Pastor John Cager of Ward A.M.E. Church said supposed concerns about equity were “a straw man argument” that “Big Tobacco wants to use to distract.”
There’s “the idea that somehow it is racist to target a product that has killed Black people,” said Akili, a longtime activist who goes by one name, who works as…