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SALT LAKE CITY — Smoking hookah was going to be against the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act beginning Monday, but on Tuesday, state officials voted to delay enforcement of the rule until the Legislature has more time to consider the implications.
Utah law indicates that smoking "any lighted tobacco product" in any form is prohibited in any place of public access, and the Utah Department of Health recently instituted a rule that hookah falls under the current statute and is therefore not permissible.
However, owners of the Huka Bar & Grill in Murray have refuted that smoking hookah through a conventional waterpipe emits no tobacco byproduct and is only heated and not lighted like a cigarette is, making it exempt from the law.
"Not all smoke is created equally," Huka co-owner Nathan Porter told the Legislature's Administrative Rules committee, which convened an emergency meeting on the new rule. He said hookah is only 20 percent tobacco and the remainder is made up of a mixture of molasses, honey and glycerol for flavor and sweetness.
A patron will come to the Huka Bar, where Porter said there are up to 75 pipes available, and indulge in an average 40-minute hookah smoking session with friends, resulting in minimal exposure to potentially harmful chemicals that he says are diluted by the time they pass through the pipe and a person's lungs.
Porter discounted studies presented by the UDOH that deem the ingredients used to smoke hookah dangerous for human consumption. He also said the new rule, if instituted, would likely put his family out of business.
"Where there's smoke, there's fire," said committee member Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "We're dancing around technicalities when the health of the public is at stake."
Craig Dietrich, a UDOH toxicologist, said that available data suggest that smoking hookah that contains tobacco is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes, as the amount of carcinogenic material that is inhaled is exponentially greater and more toxic. He said the burning charcoal that heats the product also emits harm unfavorable chemicals.
The committee intends to uphold the law as it is written, outlawing cigarette smoking indoors in public places, but determined that the language of the statute might be confusing when considering to include alternative forms of tobacco.
As hookah bars have become more popular throughout the United States, cities and states with similar indoor smoking bans have provided exemptions to hookah bars or required them to switch to a tobacco-free product, which Porter said is not favored by many patrons because of an "offensive taste."