Adam Bliss plans to open his hookah bar Jan. 2, just as he has most days for the last two and a half years, but this time he will be violating a new statewide bar and restaurant smoking ban that goes into effect that same day.
“We are going to wait for them to give us the ticket,” says Bliss, the owner of Hookah Bliss on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. “They are required to give us two warnings, and then it can be up to $200 per ticket.”
A ticket is exactly what Bliss wants. He says he’ll use it to trigger legal action against county and state officials for harassment and discrimination.
“I’m going to get the ticket. I’m going to go to court, and hopefully we’ll be able to continue our legitimate business, as we should be,” says Bliss, who sells 61 flavors of tobacco that patrons ages 18 and older can inhale through communal pipes. “That’s where we stand is, we’re going to fight.”
Orange County Environmental Health Director Tom Konsler says he’s aware of Bliss’s protest plans but isn’t sure how his agency will respond.
“We will operate on a complaint basis as far as enforcement,” said Konsler, who, as part of enforcing the ban, will oversee business owners while police handle patrons. “We don’t have any specific plan as targeted toward (Hookah Bliss) versus any other restaurant or bar that’s subject to the smoking law.”
Facing $70,000 in debt accrued from starting the business, Bliss says the protest and a lawsuit are his next steps. Otherwise, he will have to change his business practices. The ban prohibits him from serving alcohol and tobacco under the same roof, so he could stop selling booze, which makes up 25 percent of his business, and Hookah Bliss would then be considered a tobacco store, where people can freely smoke. He’ll hawk more exotic teas, coffees and fancy juices, while ramping up the hookah sales and charging more for the tobacco.
Yet Bliss is worried that the ban will damage or even close his business. Two hookah bars in the state already have closed, and Bliss says his business has decreased by a third in recent months because potential customers assume he’s shut down.
Ironically, a loophole in the law exempts cigar bars, country clubs and nonprofits, such as the American Legion, from the ban. Without the lobbying power behind them, hookah bars weren’t protected.
Bliss tried to organize other hookah bars around the state to help fight the bill, but few responded until the measure passed. He posted flyers with contact information for General Assembly members and traveled to Raleigh to no avail. Other types of businesses received an exemption because they were more powerful, he and Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange) agree.
“We’re just a bunch of schmucks here trying to make ends meet,” Bliss said. “We can’t afford lobbyists.”
Bliss worked with Kinnaird to get an exemption, but she didn’t present it after getting pushback in the Senate. Nor did it clear the House.
“About everybody got exempted but hookah bars, and since most people have never heard of a hookah bar, they didn’t feel there was a great deal of lobbying against it,” Kinnaird says.
Garrett Lagan, a second-year master’s student at UNC School of Social Work, helped Bliss lobby for the exemption. Lagan has been a patron of Hookah Bliss for more than a year and he’ll attend the protest, he said, “thumbing my nose at injustice.”
“I love hanging out here, and I can’t wait to see someone from the ALE or some cop walk in here and get laughed out of the bar after issuing a citation,” he said.
The 22-person-capacity hookah bar should be packed that day. A Facebook page for the protest has enough confirmed guests to fill the space three times.
Kinnaird says she feels sorry that Bliss was “caught up in this buzz saw,” but that’s little consolation for the first-time business owner, who sunk his savings into his dream bar.
“Between lying representatives and just their complete refusal to even consider hookah bars as legitimate smoking establishments, we are where we are,” he said. “If I’d known they were going to put me out of business, I wouldn’t have opened my business.”