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'It Would Completely Kill It'; Chicago Hookah Lounge Owners Worried About Ordinance

CHICAGO (CBS) --   An entire industry said it could be forced to shut down in Chicago for good.

Not because of the coronavirus, but because of a proposed new law aimed at protecting children.

CBS 2's Jim Williams has a story you'll see only on 2 about a ban that would be bad business for hookah bars.

It would be a ban on flavored tobacco products in Chicago. Officials have called the dangers they pose to children a public health emergency. But 17 hookah lounge owners in Chicago are asking for an exception for their businesses.

Without it, they say they'll have to close.

Fifteen years ago Rayid Khalil started his business where he hoped customers could relax.  A hookah lounge in Lakeview, where they smoke flavored tobacco.

"It would be a place I would want to go after a long day of work," Khalil said.  "We have a pretty large following."

But first, the pandemic shut down Khalil's House of Hookah temporarily. And now, Khalil said a proposed city ordinance is an even a bigger threat.

"I mean, for me personally, it would take a business I've worked incredibly hard, paid a lot of taxes over the years and employ a lot of people and it would completely kill it."

The ordinance would ban flavored tobacco products to protect children. The Centers for Disease Control said e-cigarette use or vaping has skyrocketed among teenagers.

A large bipartisan group of officials has cited its dangers from President Trump and the First Lady to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

"This is absolutely a public health crisis," said Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) a sponsor of the Chicago ordinance. "It's about saving lives. "Flavored tobacco is geared toward middle school and high school age children," O'Shea said.

But Khalil said he and 16 other hookah lounge owners in Chicago make sure they keep kids out. A person has to be 21 to enter his establishment. No children allowed inside.

"Not at all, whatsoever. Not even for a bottle of water," Khalil said.

He calls hookah a centuries-old tradition, important to middle eastern communities. Could hookah lounges stay open with a different kind of product?

"No. Hookah tobacco is a fruit-based tobacco. So you'll have flavors like apples, lemon, cherry," Khalil said.

When asked if he would be willing to support the ordinance if hookah lounges were exempt, Khalil said yes.

"I'm happy to discuss our options on this," said Ald. O'Shea. He added that he and his colleagues will take a look at Massachusetts, where lawmaker there did make such an exception. A hearing on the proposed ordinance will be held next Monday in the City Council's health committee.

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