Only One Hookah Bar in W.Va.

MORGANTOWN – There’s only one hookah bar in the state of West Virginia, and after a recent Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health meeting, it appears it will stay that way.

In March, Wheeling resident Trey Santorine asked Ohio County health board members to relax the county’s smoking ban to allow for a new business that would allow smoking – a hookah bar. Hookah smoking involves using a water pipe and tobacco that is flavored.

While the board denied Santorine’s request, it was mentioned during the meeting that such a bar exists in Morgantown where a smoking ban also is in place.

Morgantown, along with its home county of Monongalia, enacted its smoking ban after the X-Hale Hookah Lounge, 218 Walnut St., had already opened in 2009, said owner Stephen Graziano. The Monongalia County Board of Health decided since the business was established and would never be allowed to hold a food permit, that it would be OK to grandfather it into the regulation, said Jon Welch, Monongalia County’s program manager for public health services.

Welch said under the current smoking ban, no other hookah bar will be allowed to open in Monongalia County.

“We’re the only hookah bar in West Virginia,” Graziano said. ”Legally I can allow cigarette smoking, but I don’t. I don’t like to mix cigarette smoke with hookah. When you come to hookah it’s a whole different ballpark. It smells nice.”

Welch noted the smoking ban in Monongalia County went into place in January 2012.

“They decided if they made (the hookah lounge) non-smoking it would put it out of business,” Welch said of the board of health. “If it closes it can’t reopen.”

Welch noted he was not sure if there was a transfer of ownership – without the hookah bar actually closing – if it would be still be in compliance with the regulation.

Howard Gamble, Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department administrator, said retail tobacco shops are exempt from the smoking ban in Ohio County. But they are not permitted to regularly allow their patrons to smoke inside.

“We also discussed this with Mr. Santorine, that being labeled a retail tobacco store does not mean you can operate a hookah bar or allow the public to come in – or employees – and smoke on a regular basis. The business would need to focus on retail,” Gamble said.

However, any business is permitted to set aside an outdoor tent for people to smoke in. But the tent cannot be completely enclosed on all sides, Gamble added.

“For a retail hookah store, he would not need any permits from the county health department. He would need a city business license and all the necessary West Virginia business documentation,” Gamble said.

Santorine said he does not plan on trying to open a hookah bar at this time because he does not have the financing.

“The ban doesn’t make much sense in terms of the hookah bar. But I don’t think cigarette smoking should be allowed anywhere inside,” Santorine said, noting he disagrees with the board’s assessment of hookah use being a health risk.

Santorine added he also approached the Belmont County Board of Health about opening a hookah bar. There is a statewide smoking ban in Ohio. He noted the Belmont County board wasn’t nearly as receptive as Ohio County’s board.