City to step up enforcement against smoking lounges

In response to ongoing instances of crime and violence associated with some smoking lounges, Seattle and Public Health – Seattle & King County are collaborating on enforcement actions against unlawful businesses violating the ban on smoking in places of employment and public places. Additionally, the City is moving forward to file criminal charges against several businesses that have failed to comply with the law and have already been cited for violations.

“Far too many smoking lounges attract and sustain illegal, violent activity that has no place in our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “These establishments are unlawful businesses that continue to thumb their noses at the law. We will soon have additional authority to help us clamp down on operations that foster an environment that threatens public safety in our neighborhoods.”

Serious violent incidents have occurred near several smoking lounges, ranging from assaults, shots fired and fatal shootings. Three homicides over 18 months have occurred near smoking lounges, including the murder last month of Donnie Chin outside of King’s Hookah Lounge in the Chinatown-International District. Seattle Police have responded to more than 100 fights and disturbances connected to smoking lounges since 2012.

“In light of the recent shootings around these bars, the stakes are higher now and we need the direct involvement of the city to tackle this matter,” said Ahmed A. Ali of the Somali Health Board. “The SHB fully supports regulations and closures as these bars are detrimental to the health of our youth and the community’s well-being.”

“Hookah lounges are a public safety risk not just for the damage the smoking causes to the patrons and employees, but also as a magnet for public safety threats,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. “My office will pursue charges and code enforcement for all locations that operate outside the law.”

There are currently 11 smoking lounges in the City. Smoking lounges with employees who serve walk-in customers operate in violation of state statutes and county ordinances that ban smoking in places of employment.

Public Health inspectors, working in close collaboration with Seattle inspectors and police officers, have been visiting businesses and issuing smoking ban infractions. The penalty for each violation is a $100 fine.

Under recent amendments to Seattle’s business licensing code related to Cannabis enforcement, the City can revoke the license of any business that is conducting unlawful operations, including violating the ban on smoking in places of employment. The new ordinance goes into effect on Aug. 16. Business owners that continue to operate without a license face penalties of up to $5,000 a day and/or 364 days in jail.

Today, the City is filing criminal charges against the owners of King’s Hookah Lounge for failure to pay business taxes. If convicted, the penalties range up to a $5,000 fine and/or 364 days in jail.

The Mayor and City Attorney will also work with the City Council to draft a future City ordinance that will explicitly prohibit any business that sells tobacco for use on their business premises. The proposed legislation would ensure that no such business is able to obtain a business license or other City permits due to loopholes in local regulations. The legislation would also grant City inspectors the authority to cite smoking violations directly.

“The city government takes very seriously its obligation to enforce our laws fairly and in a manner that promotes public safety. The actions the Mayor is announcing today are part of a strategy to reduce violence and stop violations of public health laws,” said Council President Tim Burgess. “Businesses that operate in Seattle need to follow the rules. If they don’t, they can expect enforcement actions against them.”

“When businesses break the law and contribute to an unsafe environment, we must take measures to ensure the safety and health of the public,” said Councilmember John Okamoto. “The recent terrible murder of our friend Donnie Chin reminds us that we must work harder to protect our community and city.”

“We are listening to the concerns from neighborhoods in closing problematic hookah clubs that are not operating in compliance,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology committee. “We understand smoking hookah is part of the culture for many patrons who go to them, but they must operate safely and not be problem areas for the neighborhood.”

“Public safety and public health go hand in hand,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “Many of the hookah bars in our city are violating the public health laws and endangering the health of their workers and patrons. Regulating the bars in accordance with our laws and closing them down if necessary is the right thing to do.”

A summary of the enforcement actions can be found here.