CONCORD -- A second hookah lounge is scheduled to open in the city next month, despite concerns that it may encourage more young people to try smoking.
Planning commissioners voted 3-1 on Feb. 19 to approve a minor use permit for Hookah Palace to operate at 1120 Contra Costa Blvd. The space, formerly Metro Skateshop, is in a small strip mall south of Sunvalley mall that sits on a sliver of Concord land surrounded on three sides by Pleasant Hill.
Commissioner Robert Hoag cited the public health effects of smoking and the lounge's college-age customer base as reasons to deny the proposal.
"There are some situations that are so egregious that I think common sense would say, 'this isn't right,'" Hoag said. "In this instance, I'd have to say that opening a hookah lounge close to a couple of public schools and not very far from DVC, targeting the very young that we wished wouldn't smoke, is not good for business for Concord and it's just not right."
Since Concord allows hookah lounges, the other commissioners believed that denying the use permit would be beyond their purview. Wicked Mirage, the existing hookah lounge in the city, is tucked into a strip mall in the 3400 block of Chestnut Avenue and operates a second location in Brentwood.
"If we want to regulate this type of use then we need to address it, not tonight, but when we have our conversations about it being in the development code," Commissioner Tim McGallian said. "If those are our concerns, I don't think it's fair to take it out on one applicant."
Hookah Palace will be open until 11 p.m. most days and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. The lounge will not serve alcohol, food or any other types of beverages. Customers must show identification proving they are at least 18. A security guard will be on duty during business hours and the owners will install motion lights and security cameras on the building's exterior.
A hookah is a water pipe that uses charcoal to heat flavored tobacco and passes the smoke through water before the user inhales it.
Although hookah smoke contains nicotine, some users mistakenly believe the practice is safer and less addictive than cigarettes. While the scientific research is thin, studies indicate that hookah smoke contains toxins linked to cancer and heart disease.
Sayed Hashimi, one of three owners, said Hookah Palace will offer a special brand of non-nicotine tobacco. They will use an electric burner to heat the charcoal and a ventilation system will pump smoke out of the building and draw fresh air inside, Hashimi added.
"There's no ventilation system that exists to filter out this particulate matter, and we do know that secondhand smoke is a toxic air contaminant," said Denice Dennis, tobacco prevention project manager for the Contra Costa Health Services Department.
"There's also concern that these businesses contribute to the normalization of tobacco use among youth and young adults, especially when they're close to schools and other use-sensitive areas."
California's smoke-free workplace law exempts stores that sell tobacco and smokers' lounges as long as those businesses don't serve food or beverages. But some Bay Area cities, including Dublin, Emeryville and Newark, have banned hookah lounges, according to the American Lung Association.
Contra Costa County, Pleasant Hill, Pinole, Richmond and San Ramon ban smoking in all indoor workplaces and any indoor place that is open to the public, but Concord doesn't.
Lisa P. White covers Concord and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.