Local businesses prepare for workplace smoking ban

D smoking ban_hookahBy J. PATRICK PEPPER
Times-Herald Newspapers

Arab-owned businesses across the area are bracing for the statewide smoking ban that is scheduled to take effect May 1.

The law officially will ban smoking in all public places including workplaces, restaurants and bars, and even goes as far as to ban smoking on the patios of restaurants.

Business owners will be responsible for preventing smoking in their establishments and must take measures such as posting “no smoking” signs and removing ashtrays from the premises.

The ban has stirred controversy among businesses and members of the general public alike. Proponents argue that employees and patrons should be able to go to such places without having to breathe secondhand smoke, while critics say it is a government intrusion into what should be a private property owner’s decision. Most recent opinion polls have the public in favor of the ban by a 2-1 ratio.

But whatever the stance, the implications of the ban loom large for the many Middle Eastern restaurants and lounges in the greater Dearborn area that offer hookah, the traditional Arab water pipe used to smoke flavored tobaccos.

“The new guidelines state that if you’re going to be selling the hookah, you have to be a tobacco specialty retail store,” said Fay Beydoun, executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce.

In order to be classified as a tobacco specialty retail store, Beydoun said, business owners must submit a permit application to the Department of Community Health before the arrival of the May 1 starting date. Such stores will not be able to serve food or alcohol, are required to have a built-in humidor and must generate at least 10 percent of revenues from tobacco sales. After May 1, the state no longer will issue the permits.

But the classification poses a serious dilemma for many hookah lounges. Typically branded as cafes or bistros, most hookah lounges generate the majority of their revenues from food and beverage sales. While the establishments do sell the flavored tobacco that is smoked in the hookah, it is often more to lure in customers rather than as a big moneymaker.

Fawzi Al-Shohatee owns several local hookah lounges, including Lava Java Cafes in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, as well as Midnight Express Cafe in Dearborn. In the windows of each are colorful neon signs advertising hookah. But not for long.

Al-Shohatee said he has filed the paperwork with the state to have Midnight Express Cafe converted into a tobacco specialty retail store, but would be transitioning the Lava Javas to smoke-free establishments. He opened the Midnight Express – which is near Greenfield and Michigan Avenue – about seven years ago and since has made renovations to the building including the kitchen, he said.

But the kitchen now will have to be torn out because of the new law, which prohibits smoking in any public facility with food service and Al-Shohatee will have to make some adjustments to the Lava Java business models. Al-Shohatee said that the ban comes at a tough time.

“With the way the economy is right now, I think it’s a bad idea to make it even more difficult for business owners than it already is,” said Al-Shohatee.

While Al-Shohatee has figured out how he will adapt, many businesses have not. To help facilitate that process the American Arab Chamber is hosting a forum at the Ritz-Cartlon on Tuesday regarding the ban. In attendance will be representatives from the Michigan Department of Community Health, Department of Agriculture, Wayne County Health Department, along with municipal and state officials. The goal, Beydoun said, is to make sure everyone knows what the legislation entails and who should be contacted regarding any compliance questions.

“It’s the law now,” she said. “So we need to get everyone on the same page and make sure that their questions get answered and their concerns met.”