In Plain Sight: Hookah Bars New Smoking Hangout for Teens
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
It’s one hundred times worse than a cigarette and teens are doing it right under their parents’ noses.
Lured by the exoticism of hookahs and innocent-sounding flavors like Skittles and pink lemonade, teens are turning places like Byblos and Zenobia into hotspots for underage smoking. The two bars are blocks away from The Wheeler School and Moses Brown School on the East Side of Providence.
“It’s a tempting and unfortunate alternative for young people,” said Christine Rhodes, whose son and daughter attend Moses Brown. “I don’t think they need any more temptation to try all sorts of dangerous and illegal things out there.”
Smoking tobacco in any form in any place is illegal for someone who is under 18.
The manager at Byblos denied that anyone under 18 would have been served. “We of course check IDs at the door so no one under 18 can smoke,” said Marina Kallab. “If anybody tried to sneak in, they would be escorted out.”
GoLocalProv went undercover with 16-year-old Elizabeth Gao to find out what really happens in these hookah bars. With permission from Gao's parents, she tried to get into Byblos and Zenobia, both located on Meeting Street. She not only was allowed in, but was served hookahs—not once, but twice at each bar on two separate nights.
When Gao, a Wheeler School junior who was accompanied by a GoLocalProv staff member who was over 21, first visited the two bars, she was not carded.
She was carded the second time she entered both bars, last Saturday evening.
The waitress at Byblos apologized for checking. “I’m really sorry—normally we never card, but my boss just specifically asked me to make sure I carded out back tonight,” she told Gao. Gao said she had forgotten her purse. “Well, I can’t serve you alcohol, but hookah doesn’t matter,” the waitress responded.
At Zenobia, Gao said she had left her card in her dorm room. The host paused, looked at her twentysomething companion, asked if they were together, and then let them in.
Smoking a hookah is even more dangerous than a cigarette. A person smoking a hookah, or a water pipe, inhales as much smoke as 100 cigarettes during a single session, according to the March 2008 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.
“I was surprised,” said Lynn McCarthy, mother of a Wheeler School sophomore. “It’s a little disturbing that it’s so readily accessible to them—kind of frightening.”
Two other mothers from the Wheeler and Moses Brown schools who requested not to be identified said they had heard from their teenage children that their classmates had been able to get into the nearby hookah bars and smoke.
Responsibility for enforcing state statutes on underage smokers falls on local police departments and the Department of Revenue.
Providence Police Det. John St. Lawrence said he had walked through Byblos about a year ago to confirm that there was no one there under 18. He said he didn’t card anyone because all of the patrons were clearly old enough.
He said the department did receive a complaint about underage smokers at a hookah bar on Atwells Avenue—St. Lawrence could not recall which one it was—but when police sent in teens undercover several months ago, they were not allowed in.
St. Lawrence said police would investigate any reports of underage smoking at the Meeting Street hookah bars. “Obviously, we’ll put something together based on what I’m hearing from you,” he said. There are five hookah bars in Providence and others are located in Kingston and Woonsocket.
Owner: No Underage Smoking Here
Kallab, the manager at Byblos added, sometimes patrons under 18 enter Byblos—which doubles as a restaurant—with older friends. She said the hostess or server would keep a close eye to ensure the underage customer did not smoke a hookah.
She said if she found out that someone under 18 had been allowed to smoke, the responsible staff would be fired. “I would be very upset,” she said. “They would be fired on the spot.”
The owner of Zenobia could not be reached in time for comment.
The Rhode Island Department of Health said the state and the city of Providence recently received a $3 million grant to fight tobacco use among youth, according to Annemarie Beardsworth, a Health Department spokeswoman. She said officials were considering using some grant funds to educate minors about the dangers of hookah smoking.
“Regardless of what the form of tobacco is, it’s still dangerous to people’s health,” Beardsworth said.
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