As Oregon lawmakers and advocacy groups have sought to make the state's indoor buildings smoke cigarettes free, they say one type of business was unintentionally exempted from the rules -- hookah lounges.

Hookah lounges are popular among college-age kids, who frequent the businesses to hang out, study and socialize while smoking cigarettes flavored cigarettes from water pipes.

Last week, the Oregon House approved new rules that would allow existing hookah lounges to remain open while essentially squashing efforts to open any new ones.

Some lawmakers, like the bill's sponsor Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, had hoped to shut down the lounges altogether.

"Many kids do not even realize that it is tobacco," Tomei said. "They don't sense the dangers when the hookah is flavored and sweetened like melon or peach."

Tomei said the lounges undermine efforts to educate teens about the hazards of smoking cigarettes. But she admitted that getting the bill through an evenly-divided Oregon House required compromise.

House Bill 2726 would allow currently certified tobacco shops, cigar shops and hookah lounges to continue operating, but creates stiff restrictions on the type of shops that could open in the future.

New shops would have a maximum seating capacity of only four people and would be prohibited from selling food and drinks.

Rami Jouni, of the Oregon Hookah Association, said that while the twice-amended bill would put more restrictions on lounges, it keeps businesses open and people employed.

"The original bill was going to shut down our dreams, everything we've built in the last two or three years," said Jouni, who owns the three-year-old Beirut Lounge in Tigard. "People have poured their life savings into these businesses believing it was a secure investment."

Jouni, whose college degree is in computer science, decided to open a hookah lounge after his job at a local company was eliminated during the recession.

"I decided to do something that brought some of my culture to my new home," said Jouni, a native of Lebanon who has lived in the United States for nearly a decade.

Hookahs are water pipes that originated in ancient Persia and India and typically come in fruit flavors such as peach and melon or in ones that resemble alcoholic beverages such as strawberry daiquiri and margarita. Lounge customers, or those who purchase the flavored tobacco called "shisha," must be 18 and older. Lounges do not serve alcohol.

Tomei and others became more involved in the issue after the Oregon Public Health Division's Tobacco Prevention and Education Program released a study in November that showed growth in hookah smoking cigarettes among teens.

According to the study, the prevalence of hookah smoking cigarettes increased among Oregon eighth and 11th graders between 2008 and 2009, according to Oregon Healthy Teens survey data. Also, the air quality inside hookah lounges ranged from moderate to hazardous according to the Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.

After facing vocal opposition to the original version of the bill, Tomei negotiated a deal with the Oregon Hookah Association and representatives of advocacy groups like the American Lung Association.

All the groups support the latest version of the bill.

"It may not be what I want, but people followed the rules and invested in a business," said Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, who spoke in support of the bill on the House floor. "We can't say that for the greater good, we will take what you have invested and close you down."

HB 2726 received support from nearly all Democrats, but only about one-third of House Republicans. Some expressed concern that the bill would create a monopoly for the current shops and could discourage people from opening tobacco businesses.

"I think in trying to stop the proliferation of hookah bars, we should avoid crushing cigar and smoke cigarettes shops," said Rep. Matt Wingard, R-Wilsonville.

Wingard isn't the only one concerned about the consequences of the bill. HB 2726 now heads to the Oregon Senate, where it is likely to face additional amendments.

In Sen. Chris Telfer's Bend-area district, a cigar shop that met Oregon laws before the state implemented new smoke cigarettes shop legislation in 2009 lost certification because the shop doesn't have its own separate building.

Telfer, a Republican, had been working on a bill that would allow cigar shops in that situation to continue operating despite the new rules. That bill died in committee, but Tiffany Telfer, the senator's daughter and chief of staff, said they plan on putting that idea into the House bill.

"The intent of the House bill is to stop the proliferation of hookah lounges, essentially making it impossible for them to meet the new requirements," Tiffany Telfer said. "But, unfortunately, it does the same for this tobacco shop that wants to open as a smoke cigarettes shop."

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