Police from Fairfield asked the Public Health Committee Wednesday to allow them to regulate hookah lounges, which they said can currently act as de facto nightclubs in their town.
Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara testified in support of a bill introduced by Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, giving municipal police the ability to regulate the hours of hookah lounges, which are establishments where people can gather to smoke tobacco through a hookah, a type of waterpipe. But because the lounges do not serve food or alcohol, they’re not currently regulated by the state, MacNamara said.
He said the lounges have the same atmosphere as a club or a bar, but without the regulations typically placed upon those establishments. A bar is subject to inspections and limitations on its hours of operations. They are subject to penalties if minors consume alcohol there or if someone consumes too much alcohol.
McNamara said that is not the case with hookah lounges, which have been a problem in Fairfield where some have allowed patrons to bring their own booze.
“It’s basically a nightclub that’s open all night long. It becomes an afte-hours club. When the state-regulated bars close, people are now flocking to these hookah lounges,” he said.
MacNamara said the Fairfield police are limited in their ability to enforce laws in the lounges because they are not allowed to enter them as they would a bar.
Capt. Joshua Zabin, the Fairfield Police Department’s patrol commander, said officers often respond to calls at hookah lounges, which operate from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. He said it has a negative impact on the neighborhood.
“It generates neighbor complaints. Everything from idling cars outside, radios playing, foot traffic, accidents, actual fights occurring in the street, and a tremendous amount of litter through the early morning hours. Everything from liquor bottles . . . down to trash, condoms, men and women urinating in public,” he said.
MacNamara said he would like to see the lounges recognized as liquor establishments, giving police the ability to treat them the same way. He called them a public health concern.
“We’ve had minors intoxicated, ambulance calls. We’ve had sexual assaults of minors because you have older individuals with younger individuals who are unregulated in their consumption of alcohol,” he said.
MacNamara said one lounge was shut down after a 14-year-old girl reported being sexually assaulted there. He said Fairfield currently has two other hookah lounges. One lounge, with a bring-your-own-alcohol policy, is causing the most problems, he said.
The bill before the committee is not the first the legislature has considered with respect to hookah lounges. Two years ago, lawmakers debated a bill primarily aimed at addressing the health concerns of smoking and sharing tobacco pipes inside the lounges. The legislation would have banned smoking in establishments created after July 2011. That bill passed the Senate but died on the House calendar.
Kupchick, the sponsor of this year’s legislation, said her bill wasn’t aimed at combating tobacco smoking.
“It’s not about the hookah. Someone else can argue that point about the public safety piece of a hookah. It is that they’re using it basically as a bar. If you’re going to allow people to bring alcohol in, you should have to follow the same rules as any other bar,” she said.
MacNamara said all he was looking for was the ability to conduct inspections of the lounges. He said he wouldn’t be opposed to the bill’s concept being rolled into broader legislation on hookah lounges.