CHAMPAIGN – Garenne Bigby opened his Champaign hookah bar, Nargile, about 2 years ago. After a slow start, the business at 207 W. Clark St. is doing well.
But hookah's days could be numbered in Champaign-Urbana if a smoking ban in most public places goes into effect. That possibility has Champaign City Council member Ken Pirok suggesting that bars that offer hookah should be exempt from the smoking ban.
With hookah, fruit-flavored tobacco purchased at the bar is smoked in a hookah pipe, with a long tube that passes through water cooling the tobacco smoke.
Bigby said hookah smoking is popular with University of Illinois students, including many from the Middle East.
Pirok said the exemption he's thinking of would allow hookah bars to continue to sell flavored tobacco and allow hookah smoking. Pirok said cigarettes, cigars or normal pipes would still be prohibited in a hookah bar under such an exemption.
"You're going there expressly to smoke," he said. "We're asking them to change the nature of their business so much it could close their business."
Pirok, who voted for the comprehensive smoking ban, said he is not worried that such an exemption would lead to a proliferation of hookah bars. He said he will circulate a petition requesting a study session on the issue if no one else does.
Bigby said he supports Pirok's suggested exemption, saying banning hookah from his bar could put him out of business.
"It is our main attraction, especially for students," he said. "The whole bar was formed around hookah."
Nargile charges $8 for a package of fruit-flavored tobacco (flavors include mango, apple and orange) that usually enables a small group of people to smoke for 20 to 30 minutes.
"It's a really cool thing," Bigby said. "Both my place and Green Street Cafe (35 E. Green St., C, the city's other hookah bar) are set up as lounges. It's not like a bar and people getting wasted. It's a lot of people sitting around and conversing."
The Champaign council earlier this month approved a comprehensive smoking ban in most public places, effective Aug. 1, though the ban is contingent upon Urbana enacting a similar ban. The vote was 5-4.
The Urbana City Council is expected to approve a ban on June 5.
In both cities, the main exemption where smoking would still be allowed is in outdoor areas of bars and restaurants.
Two other Champaign council members expressed reservations about reopening the issue.
"You can smoke tobacco if it's smoked through a water pipe?" asked Tom Bruno. "I think it's difficult to make that distinction. I think that opens up a distinction not merited by the facts."
Hookah bar owners can simply become bars, Bruno said, adding he doesn't want to see hookah pipes at bars all over town.
"It's going to put the hookah out of business, not the bar," Bruno said. "If he (the owner) has a nice atmosphere and a good clientele, he can stay in business."
Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart, a smoking ban opponent, said he wouldn't support the exemption either.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's up to the five who were the majority," said Schweighart. "They made the mess, let them correct it."
Meanwhile, Pirok said he still thinks a comprehensive ban is best for Champaign-Urbana and that he won't support just a restaurant smoking ban.
"A lot of people want us to remain a small town like we were 25 years ago," he said. "Everything we do fits together: establishing a (tax increment finance) district downtown, having a smoking ban and providing economic development funds to the (UI) reseach park. The long-term goal is to become bigger and more sophisticated and becoming a forward-looking city that will support a world-class university."