Up in Smoke

Looking for a place to puff

Remember the good, old days (way back in April), when you could sit at the bar with your beer and suck on cancer sticks without freaking the fuck out about getting fined $50?

Well, those days aren't exactly here again, but there are some places in the Valley where you won't get strung up for lighting up. And I, for one, am damned grateful, because I loveto smoke. Before the Smoke Free Arizona Act was placed in effect on May 1, I'd walk into restaurants and ask to be seated in the chain-smoking section. I was born with a pack of Camel Filters in one hand and a joint in the other.

Sometimes, that makes it hard for me to do my job covering music.

Although most large concert halls and arenas in the Valley didn't allow smoking even before the ban, it certainly has affected the music scene at smaller clubs, where fans now have to choose between seeing a band's entire set or settling for just a few songs so they can go outside and smoke. At the New Times Summer of Sound hard rock/metal show on June 29, I saw only about half of each band's set — not because the bands weren't good (they rocked), but because every time I finished a beer, I wanted a cigarette. And that meant going outside, where the live music onstage just translates into cacophonous thumpings and distorted echoes.

Nobody sounds good from the smoking section anymore, because the only "smoking section" is out in the parking lot. And speaking of parking lots, I've spent a lot of time in them recently, any time I go out, and not just to catch the latest act.

So I was elated when I hit up a hookah lounge in Tempe on a recent Saturday night and found it filled with smoke. I smoked so much that my lungs felt like wet sandbags for two days.

Was I breaking the law? I wish. It'd feel sexier if it were totally taboo and illegal — like if one day, the only places left to smoke were underground speakeasies, remodeled and revived from the booze prohibition days. But according to Section R9-2-107 of the Smoke Free Arizona Act, "a proprietor may permit smoking in a retail tobacco store only if the retail store derives the majority of its sales from tobacco products and accessories, is physically separated and independently ventilated," and the owners prepare affidavits stating that at least 51 percent of their gross annual income stems from the sale of tobacco and smoking accessories.

In other words, customers at businesses like tobacco shops and hookah bars that meet the requirements of Section R9-2-107 have a green light to light up. For now, anyway. Don Harrington, a public information officer for the Arizona Department of Health Services, says that the AZDHS is "presently looking into the exceptions with legal counsel."

As for the affidavits, Harrington says that any tobacco retailers who began operating on or after May 1 of this year must file them when they open for business. Retailers who were in operation prior to May 1 should have an affidavit "on hand," if and when AZDHS comes to investigate a complaint.

I'm not complaining. It's a pain in the ass to walk (or stumble) outside to smoke 20 feet away from the front door, and for some women I know, leaving drinks unattended in the bar while they go puff up has been a real concern.

On the other hand, the smoking ban has created this weird segregated social circle, and that's not always a bad thing. Before the ban, I sat at the table smoking with my friends and didn't feel compelled to talk to people I didn't know. Now, I stand outside with 20 other banished smokers, and we all bitch about the ban, strike up conversations, and get to know each other (or argue and shove each other, which I've also seen). If I were still allowed to smoke inside the bar, I'd probably never talk to most of these people. And I would have missed out on hearing all about how to properly pull wet meat, from that guy who made his own beef jerky, or getting unsolicited relationship advice from that gay boy who flashed me his boobs for some Mardi Gras beads.

The term "social smoker" has taken on a whole new meaning.

At a particular hookah bar near the ASU campus in Tempe, the smoking and the socializing almost take on an air of hedonistic bliss. You can lounge on oversized pillows, eat tasty Middle Eastern dishes, listen to a mix of contemporary hip-hop and Arabian folk music injected with dance beats, smoke flavored tobacco out of a hookah,and even smoke cigarettes to your heart's (and lungs') desire, without being exiled to the parking lot.

On a sweltering Saturday night, I brought my friend — whom we'll call "Ishtar" — to this hookah bar. (I'm not going to name the bar, because from my observation, they may be making more revenue from food sales than tobacco sales, and I don't want to get them in any trouble.)

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