After a shooting at an illegally operated hookah lounge killed one person and injured more than a dozen, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is asking Clark County leaders to create a hookah lounge license.
Metro Lt. Ailee Burnett said during a Clark County Commission meeting Oct. 4 that there has been a “surge in activity” at hookah lounges in recent years and that the establishments have gained a reputation for pushing boundaries, such as B. Serving bottles of alcohol similar to nightclubs, hosting live entertainment, or charging entrance fees.
“We receive many complaints from community members, law enforcement and the area commands [about hookah lounges]’ said Burnett. “Many of these complaints are asking for our support [moderate] some of the entertainment nights they have.”
Burnett’s comments highlighted what has become a regulatory loophole — despite the industry’s growth, there is no specific business license for a hookah lounge in Clark County. Instead, county water pipe is regulated with an additional permit that is added to a business license, e.g. a restaurant or supper club where gastronomy is the main attraction and alcohol may be served, or taverns where gastronomy is not required.
Metro Police and Clark County want to better regulate hookah lounges by creating a new licensing process that could include requirements like FBI clearance or a probationary period, which could come with a limit on business hours. County officials have invited hookah lounge operators to the process, but based on their public comments, many want more clarity on a regulatory process they fear could inadvertently put them out of business.
Burnett said there are approximately 60 to 75 hookah lounges in Las Vegas that are licensed as supper clubs and do not charge admission or operate like nightclubs.
While presenting “the ugly side of the hookah” to the commissioners, Burnett shared social media advertisements and video clips from security cameras at local lounges showing hookah smoking, women dancing at stalls and bottles tossed with flashing lights were carried to tables.
According to Burnett, law enforcement has expended many hours and police resources policing hookah lounges, many of which violate licensing requirements by not serving food.
“Often times we’ve seen these operators get licenses for restaurants only[s],” she said. “And then they don’t get the alcohol [license] along with him… you’re bypassing a proficiency test that goes through my office on Metro.”
Commissioner Tick Segerblom said during the meeting that he and Commissioner William McCurdy want to work with industry leaders to professionalize and improve the hookah lounge industry, which could include a new licensing process.
“We have to make sure that we don’t harm the industry,” said Segerblom. “Because the industry … is very successful and very prominent and growing.”
Popularity and Regulations
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, smoking hookah tobacco “ambiguously” stems from traditions in Southwest Asia and North Africa, but hookah lounges or hookah bars are nothing new in American hospitality.
Four centuries ago, a doctor in India created the hookah or hookah to serve an emperor, and the invention quickly spread among the elite in neighboring Middle Eastern and African countries. It became an alternative to cigarette smoking and an additional activity for restaurants in the “western world” in the 1960s and 1970s as entrepreneurs emigrated to America.
After decades of anti-tobacco campaigns targeting cigarette smoking, the hookah industry in the US has grown in popularity and has since grown into a burgeoning industry with California, Nevada, Arizona and Washington, DC ranking the highest States are for lifetime use.
During a Clark County Commission town hall in mid-September, hospitality professionals were asked to weigh possible regulations for a hookah lounge license.
McCurdy said they are trying to put in place a process that would allow for “the safe application of the business” – something he said would ultimately improve the industry.
“I know we’re going to be looking at these policies side-by-side to make sure we’re proposing the same thing,” he told the crowd. “So that we have an industry standard for how we will look at hookah lounges in the future.”
Possible considerations are:
- A privileged license is required to operate a hookah smoking lounge
- Require work cards from LVMPD for employees and set an age limit of 21 and over for employees and customers
- Required aptitude test or investigation of an individual’s reputation
- Each live entertainment requires special permission
- Submit a safety plan and agree to act in a “decent, orderly, and respectful manner.”
- Ban entry fees
- Allow licenses to be revoked, suspended, or not renewed for cause
During eligibility screenings, law enforcement and officials could issue temporary licenses with temporary restrictions on the business until a business owner is proven trustworthy.
When the topic of banning entry fees came up, nobody in the audience from the hookah lounge industry spoke out against the concept. Entrance fees are permitted during live entertainment at establishments with a Supper Club license.
Hookah permits for licensed caterers will not be changed, and county officials say new changes will not be applied retrospectively.
Conversations arose in town halls about safety and accountability for parking activities. McCurdy said they are not asking businesses to deploy security personnel, but that owners have a security plan in place to keep customers and the community safe.
Clark County commissioners and hookah industry professionals discussed the current regulations governing bars, hookah lounges and restaurants at a town hall held last August, while a second town hall held in mid-September on possible considerations for the new hookah lounge license focused.
During the first town hall, Segerblom said he realized that business was not being properly monitored and regulated. During the meeting, county and city leaders gave a presentation on the many ways hookah lounges could not function like nightclubs due to current regulations, while a crowd of about 50 business owners, workers and entrepreneurs listened.
A hookah permit identifies a business as an establishment that principally or through ancillary services involves the smoking of tobacco or other substances “from a shared, single or multi-rope hookah.” To obtain a hookah permit, which is free in Clark County, a business owner must make an appointment with the county clerk to have the additional service approved by a public safety inspectorate.
The fire department will inspect the store to make sure it’s in compliance, along with the Southern Nevada Health District, if it’s serving food and beverages. A zoning inspection also takes place to ensure the site is suitable based on land use.
“Adding a hookah to a restaurant license still doesn’t permit the sale or service of alcohol, live entertainment, the collection of admission fees, or the operation of a nightclub,” said Jennifer Wilfred, assistant manager at Clark County Business Licensing.
Supper clubs were the most common businesses with a hookah license attached.
“The Supper Club…maybe a term that’s unfamiliar to some people,” Wilfred said. “But I’ll give you an example – of what you might think of as an Applebee. That would be a supper club.”
A tavern license, the only named business that can operate like a nightclub or adult entertainment cabaret like Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen’s Club, can charge bottle service, live entertainment, entrance fees and is not required to sell food.
During the town hall, Jasmine Fox, co-owner of the Atlanta-based Cru Hookah Lounge franchise, told executives that the policy didn’t define what it meant to “operate like a nightclub” and that the codes didn’t speak specifically to bottle service.
“I think making sure that … if there’s a problem, let us know,” she said. “Because I’m definitely an owner where I’ve made sure I have all the permits.”
She said her temporary liquor license was not renewed because she offered bottle service, but she was never subpoenaed by inspectors or police who witnessed her business practices. County officials say the law specifically addresses this.
Fox came to Las Vegas last fall to open the sixteenth location for the Cru Hookah Lounge, located on Maryland Parkway across from UNLV. The space was used by locals and UNLV students as some worked there while others hosted graduations, student organization meetings, and nightlife.
“I think there should be a clear definition of what you perceive as a nightclub and what our business vision is,” Fox said. “My business was a lounge, a shisha lounge.”
After the two town halls, county officials directed the Business Licensing Department to educate business owners on the current regulations and use “existing enforcement tools” until a status update is presented to the board “sometime next year.”
security and stigma
Shisha lounge owners, caterers and entrepreneurs said they felt their business was being stigmatized for “bad actors”. They also urged county officials to ensure landlords have more liability in securing premises for hookah-based businesses.
Alex Abram, the assistant manager at Splash Supper Club, a sleek fine-dining restaurant that serves hookahs at Flamingo and Jones, said when it comes to safety, his business goes above and beyond.
“They’re not just watching the surrounding area, they’re also watching the few shops in the background that we checked to make sure they were ok and stuff like that,” he said of his security team.
Abram said he’s proactive when it comes to safety and security, and he believes there’s a good chance his company will be held responsible for incidents in the area.
In recent years, a small number of hookah lounges have experienced fatal violence or repeated robberies, while prominent Vegas-based restaurant Paymons recently dropped the word hookah from its name, according to Fox 5 News.
Abram said other supper club operators need to keep tabs on things and that people in the business need to understand they have a responsibility to the public and community. He said that regardless of the reputation of the industry, the goal should be to make things better.
“[The industry] could have been bad in front of you, but you want to make it a better place than it was before,” Abram said.