Al Narah, Eugene's newest hookah lounge, may have opened in the nick of time.

EUGENE — Al Narah, Eugene's newest hookah lounge, may have opened in the nick of time.

If Oregon lawmakers pass House Bill 2726, new hookah bars would be banned from opening, but the 62 existing lounges statewide plus any established before July would be grandfathered in.

"We won't have to worry about the law even if it passed," Al Narah manager Jesse Lascano said as smoke billowed out from the corner of his mouth.

Hookah bars are shops where customers indulge in smoking varied tobacco products using the tall water pipes.

The bill, which has cleared the Oregon House of Representatives, would tighten a loophole in Oregon's Smokefree Workplace Law, which allows people in smoke shops to sample the tobacco.

Under the proposed changes, hookah lounges and smoke shops wouldn't be allowed to provide seating for more than four people, essentially making it impossible for new hookah lounges to be created.

Outside of his shop at 1530 Willamette St., Lascano inhaled tobacco from a blue hookah, a tall water pipe complete with valves and hoses.

"It's really a fun, laid back sort of thing," Lascano said.

Since it officially started serving smokers three weeks ago, the hookah lounge has become popular among some, including University of Oregon student Alysah Dahlstrom.

"This is a great place to come and relax," Dahlstrom said. "Last night, a friend and I came here and worked on our chemistry homework. It's a lot more comfortable than the library."

But not everyone has welcomed Al Narah and its tobacco fumes to the neighborhood.

"In Eugene, we have people who understand hookah, but there are always a few who don't get what we're doing," Lascano said.

Eve Terran is one such resident. In a letter to The Register-Guard, Terran described an "assault of smoke and unpleasant, toxic smells" as she walked by the shop. Terran said she's disappointed that the city hasn't worked harder to protect the health of its citizens.

"There has been a violation of our protections, and I ask that the city and community step up and correct this," Terran wrote.

But Eugene, under its current ordinances, doesn't have the power to prohibit Al Narah, or Eugene's other hookah lounge, Mirage, at 2164 W. Seventh Ave., from opening.

The loophole in Oregon's Smokefree Workplace Law allows hookah lounges. In 2009, the law was amended to prohibit indoor smoking in nearly all workplaces, except for smoke shops and cigar bars; hookah bars are considered smoke shops.

The state defines smoke shops as free-standing businesses that generate 75 percent or more of their revenue from selling tobacco, and that don't sell alcohol or lottery tickets.

The legal process for Al Narah to become a smoke shop took months, but the certification was essential if Al Narah wanted to establish itself as a smoking lounge.

"We were losing money for months when we didn't have our smoke shop license," Lascano said. "You can't make enough money really just selling the stuff. People need a place to enjoy it."

When it was conceived, the law wasn't meant to provide places for recreational smoking. It was intended to allow customers to sample expensive cigars or tobacco products before they splurged.

Lawmakers apparently didn't anticipate the loophole being used to justify the creation of hookah lounges.

"Hookah lounges weren't sweeping the nation like they are now when the law was drafted," said Stephanie Young-Peterson, Lane County Public Health Department tobacco prevention coordinator. "Most people hadn't even heard of such a thing."

Young-Peterson said hookah smoke can be even more harmful than cigarette smoke. "Smoking hookah for an hour is the equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes in a day," she said.

The city of Eugene had planned on proposing a work session to possibly tighten up the city ordinance and make it tougher for hookah lounges to open up. But Rachelle Nicholas, the city's code enforcement supervisor, said such discussions have been postponed until after the Legislature concludes any action it might take.

"There's no reason to do the same thing at the city level if the state is already in the process of closing the loophole," she said.

In the meantime, area businesses such as Willamette Artisans Jewelry and Designs, a neighbor of Al Narah, seem to accept the arrival of a hookah shop next door.

"My only concern was that it might attract unsavory characters to the area," owner Tanya Gunter said. "But hey, we're a business, they're a legal business, and as far as I'm concerned they have every right to be there."