Friday, March 30, 2012

Hookah Story Mostly Hokem

"Hookah boom in Richardson causes concerns about underage smoking."

That's the headline to a story in The Dallas Morning News by Ann Marie Shambaugh. Go read the story. Read it again. Does the story support the headline?

After the jump, trying to find some fire beneath all the smoke.

Shambaugh is mostly blowing smoke. The story says Richardson is the "hub" of "hookah bars." The headline describes a "boom." The story says there are "at least seven businesses that sell hookah within four miles of UTD." Is seven a boom? If so, how would Shambaugh describe the number of businesses that sell beer and wine within four miles of UT-Dallas? A few years ago there were none in Richardson. What's bigger than a boom? Would that be a bigger story? Selling beer or wine to 18-21 year-olds is illegal. Selling tobacco isn't. Does that matter? Shambaugh doesn't appear to be interested.

Where are the "concerns" about "underage smoking" mentioned in the headline coming from? Shambaugh doesn't say. I'm not denying that kids smoke, but Shambaugh doesn't cite any numbers or examples. Shambaugh fails to identify even a single case of underage smoking. Shouldn't the subject of a headline be backed up with some facts in the story itself?

The story has quotes from an 18 year-old, a 21 year-old, and the owner of one hookah lounge who describes many of his customers as UT-Dallas students (which presumably means adults aged 18 and older). No quotes from underage smokers, no quotes from aggrieved parents whose children have been hooked by hookah bars. No quotes from police describing an epidemic of underage smoking.

Wait. The story does have quotes from a spokesman for the Richardson Police Department, Sgt. Kevin Perlich, who says the RPD periodically check hookah bars and "do not often find bars that are not complying with the law" against the sale of tobacco to anyone younger than eighteen. So much for that.

Shambaugh has to go all the way to Virginia to find someone (Thomas Eissenberg, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor) who is concerned, but his concern is for anyone smoking water pipes. He seems to be in favor of requiring warning labels and other educational outreach to ensure customers of hookah lounges aren't under the mistaken impression that water pipes somehow negate the health risks of smoking tobacco. Fine. But that's quite a bit different from the image conjured by Shambaugh's headline.

So, what's the story here? I know that the Richardson City Council for some reason has its sights aimed at hookah lounges. I've assumed it's more out of concern for the perceived negative affect on surrounding property values than on concern about underage smoking. (There's a lot more underage smoking going on outside, nowhere near hookah lounges, than inside.) Shambaugh doesn't quote anyone from the council or city staff, so if someone from the city is behind the story, they've kept their fingerprints off of it. Is Shambaugh reacting to complaints from regular citizens instead? She doesn't identify anyone like that, either. So, who inspired her to write this (non-)story? And with what motives? The smoke surrounding those questions hasn't cleared yet.

For the record, I think smoking is a dirty, stinky, unhealthy habit. I support efforts to encourage people not to take up smoking in the first place, and that primarily means education programs targeting children. I just don't think hassling hookah lounges that cater to adults doing adult things that are perfectly legal is a particularly effective focus for anti-smoking efforts. I suspect there's a different motive at work in this case, but I won't speculate on what it might be.

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