Before North Carolina's ban on smoking in bars and restaurants kicked in, the owners of the Hookah Bar in downtown Asheville made their feelings quite clear.
"Only a few short days till we extend our middle finger to the N.C. Smoking Ban. The Hookah Bar will be open in 2010," read one message from the business's Twitter account. And on Jan. 2, the day the ban took effect, another tweet declared, "F the smoking ban … We are still smoking … I am right now!!"
But despite the defiant tone, co-owner J.C. Wright says the business at 64 Carver St. isn't violating the new law.
"We don't allow cigarette smoke inside, just hookahs," he explains. "Technically, we're not defying the ban: We're in compliance with the law. We are still smoking, and we're very much trying to promote that fact. Everybody was asking if we were shutting down; that's just not true. We did our homework. A lot of people are glad to see that we're still in business."
Although the ban does not specifically exempt hookah bars (as it does cigar clubs), Wright maintains that the Hookah Bar dodges the prohibition because it features tea-based "shisha" rather than tobacco products.
"Shisha is traditionally tobacco that's been dried, cut, mixed with molasses. Instead, in this process [which does not use tobacco], tea is boiled to get rid of the flavor — then it's the same process from there out," he notes. "We're looking into options that would allow us to still comply with the ban as it's written, yet still serve tobacco."
So far, there have been no legal repercussions (violating the ban can carry fines of up to $200 a day), says Wright, and in fact, the business has found the state Department of Health and Human Services "actually, strangely enough, quite cooperative in helping us find a way to still continue our operation and trying to see what requirements we had to meet to achieve that goal."
However, he adds, "We're still studying the law, seeing if there are ways to get around the ramifications and get back to serving tobacco."