By Dustin Luca
---- — A Plymouth-based hookah lounge has applied to open a second location in downtown Andover, a proposal that has health officials scrambling to establish local regulations.
Fig and Lux LLC, doing business as Lux Hookah Lounge, filed an application with the Health Department on Jan. 30 to open a lounge and tobacco retailer at 63 Park St. The multi-story retail complex adjacent to a town-owned parking lot is home to a number of businesses, including Domino’s Pizza and the women’s shop Wardrobe on Park.
Owners Maryanne Nagle and Bahaa Dalloul, who went before the Board of Health Monday night, declined to comment for this story, pending a final response from the town.
But Nagle told the Board of Health that the Andover business would be similar to the owner’s Plymouth social lounge, offering “more of a cultural aspect than a smoking aspect.” Nagle called it a social experience with the hookah at its core.
“If you were to walk in, customers are playing chess, backgammon. We have professors from all over Massachusetts meet there and discuss ideas,” Nagle said. “This is more about an environment that promotes intellect and ideas.”
The company’s website describes a hookah as a water pipe in which flavored tobacco or “shisha” is smoked from and calls it “a Middle Eastern tradition that dates back hundreds of years.”
“We invite you to sit down with friends and relax with one of our premium blends,” according to the website, which lists an array of blends on its menus.
The Plymouth lounge, which opened in May 2012, is billed as “warm, inviting and elegant” and featuring “soft ambient music playing, comfortable couches and lighting.” It also hosts belly dancers as entertainment, according to the website. Guests must be at least 18 years old.
“We don’t lure anyone there with food or alcohol,” Nagle said. “They’re there for that social aspect with the hookah, with the passing of the pipe.”
Because the town does not currently have local tobacco control regulations in place, the proposal would fall under existing state health laws.
Town Health Director Tom Carbone will rule on the application administratively based on the state regulations, he said.
Carbone said Monday night there is little reason on his end to reject the application, as state laws allow it.
“I haven’t acted on it yet. Ultimately, I don’t have any public health law that says I can’t issue this and shouldn’t issue. I’ll have to issue,” he told the board. “There are some other things they have to straighten out, but ultimately, this could happen tomorrow.”
While state law generally prohibits smoking in businesses, hookah lounges are a clear exception because of their business model, according to Carbone.
“In these types of lounges, I believe when they’re allowed, it’s because the majority of their receipts are tobacco related,” he said. “(Business) is not from alcohol. It’s not from food. It’s not from T-shirts.”
As far as Andover’s position on tobacco regulations, “it has been on the back burner, because we’ve had other things going on,” Carbone said. “From a public health regulatory standpoint, right now we’re not regulating beyond what the state has. The question will be, does the board want to?”
The Board of Health in the next few months could adopt regulations that would suddenly say, “This isn’t going to happen anymore,” Carbone said.
He also outlined other options, including a sunset clause, which would allow such businesses to operate for a certain period of time until they are banned altogether, or a provision that would put a halt to any new proposals once a regulation was adopted.
Boston, for example, has a sunset law in place that in 2018 will outlaw the half-dozen or so hookah lounges currently operating in the city, he said.
Board of Health Chairwoman Candace Martin said she was concerned about the proposed business because hookah smoke, lacking all the additives and addictive qualities of cigarettes, “is not as bad, but it’s still bad.”
“I would rather promote a special environment where people are going to eat healthy foods than people going to a smoking lounge,” she said.
Board member Gopala Dwarakanath, however, said he was less inclined to reject the idea without reading up on it.
“I would personally like to learn a little bit more about it rather than just dismissing it,” he said. “We need to have a discussion.”
In addition to the Health Department’s approval, Fig and Lux would need to go before the town’s Building Department before it could open to determine if the business is allowed under current downtown zoning regulations, Carbone said.