The Revere Board of Health voted 2-1 against an amendment to its regulations that would have permitted the establishment of no more than three smoking lounges in the city.
All three members of the board, chairperson Dr. Nathalee Kong, Dr. Craig Costanza, and Nezha Louaddi, were on hand at their monthly meeting last Tuesday to tackle the proposed amendment that was part of a full agenda before a near-capacity crowd in the City Council Chambers at City Hall.
The specific regulation at issue, known as the Smoke Free Workplace Regulation, was enacted by the Board of Health in 2004 and prohibits smoking “in all workplaces, all public places, and all public transportation vehicles.”
The impetus for a change to the regulation was forwarded by well-known and highly-respected local businessman Saber Abougalala, who is seeking to open a hookah lounge in Revere similar to those that exist in other communities.
The meeting drew a large crowd of supporters of the amendment, all of whom testified that hookah has been a long-established part of Near Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures for centuries, originating in India and then spreading west to Turkey and the Middle East.
“This is predominantly for cultural reasons,” said attorney Christopher Cridler of the law firm of D’Ambrosio Brown LLP, who was representing the petitioner, Mr. Abougalala. “The Asian, No. African, and Indian cultures see hookah as a communal and social experience….a place to share and relax and enjoy each other’s company in a group atmosphere. It’s like going out to a bar for those who do not drink in a safe, comfortable, and casual space.”
Cridler noted that Abougalala was seeking to open a small hookah lounge on Winthrop Ave. near Broadway in a space adjacent to his well-known restaurant, which is located at the corner of Broadway and Winthrop Ave.
Cridler noted that there will be no food or alcohol served at the lounge and it will be open only to adults over the age of 21.
“Revere is a very diverse city,” said Cridler, “and should allow all members of the community to decide how they want to spend their time together.”
City Councillor George Rotondo spoke in favor of the amendment.
“Saber is a man of his word. He will do it correctly,” said Rotondo, one of a number of city officials, including some of his fellow councillors and Mayor Brian Arrigo, who reportedly are in favor of the amendment. “This is culturally-accepted throughout the world. This is something that will add to the city. We all have personal choices whether to drink, smoke marijunana, or smoke cigarettes. Let’s allow adults to do what they want.”
Another proponent of the amendment was David Riccio, a long-time Revere resident who formerly owned and operated a cigar lounge in the City of Boston for 30 years.
Riccio said he recently sold his business in Boston and would like to open a cigar bar in Revere with his son. “Revere is a world-class city and the amendment should be approved,” said Riccio.
Atty. Gerry D’Ambrosio, speaking in a personal capacity, added that Mr. Abougalala is, “one of the most wonderful people in the city of Revere.”
D’Ambrosio also noted that this is a complicated matter because the board “has to strike the balance between health and personal freedom. If you vote not to allow this type of license….you are abdicating the difficulty of what you need to do. This type of license can be allowed with the proper conditions.”
A number of private citizens also spoke in favor of the amendment, with members of the Muslim community, who do not partake of the usual social gathering places because they do not drink alcohol, telling the board that a hookah lounge will provide their community with a safe place to gather and socialize.
Those who spoke in opposition to the amendment, who included representatives from area tobacco-control collaboratives, pointed to the negative health consequences of hookah smoking and the challenges of regulating a hookah lounge because of the uniqueness of its type of operation.
The board also received a petition signed by 93 Revere High students, as well as a dozen emails and three voicemails, in opposition to the amendment.
“Allowing a smoking bar creates an environment that promotes the use of tobacco and sends the wrong message to our kids — enticing and addicting young adults,” said the students in their letter. (See adjacent story for the full text of the students’ letter and their reaction to the board’s decision.)
At the conclusion of the public hearing, the members briefly expressed their views on the matter.
Chairperson Kong said that the issue is not about whether one person is a good applicant, “You have to balance the public health, something I think about every day,” said Kong. “I have to take health into consideration and vote, ‘No,’ taking into account that there are other nearby hookah bars in other communities.”
“Looking at both sides, this is very, very difficult,” said Costanza. “What is more dangerous — giving up freedom or health?” Costanza then voted in favor of the amendment.
Louaddi agreed that the issue was a difficult one because of the competing interests, but stated, “When it comes to health issues, it’s very addictive…I did some research. A one-hour hookah session is like smoking the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes.”
Louaddi then voted against the amendment, sealing its defeat, 2-1.
However, the board did approve two other amendments to the smoking regulations. One amendment establishes a buffer zone of 50 feet within a public building, At the start of the meeting, Lauren Buck, the Revere Director of Public Health, noted that this particularly has been an issue outside of the city’s public schools.
The board also voted to include electronic nicotine delivery systems (which did not exist in 2004) within the purview of wherever the use of tobacco-related products presently are prohibited.
Prior to the public hearing on the amendment to the smoking regulations, the board took up some other matters on its agenda, including whether to condemn the home at 843 No. Shore Rd. Two tenants presently occupy the premises, a family of three on the first floor and an individual on the second floor.
Peter Brown from the city’s Inspectional Services Dept. presented the board with a litany of violations of numerous city ordinances, including that the home is not legally a two-family residence and that there is no legal second means of egress from the second floor apartment, other than through a hatch door in a closet space.
However, Brown told the board that the immediate threat of a fire because of electrical hazards requires condemnation of the property. Brown noted that these issues had been brought to the owner’s attention in August, but that nothing has been done to remedy the situation at this time.
Brown also noted that the Electrical Inspector already has deemed the property a hazard and has ordered the electric company to shut off power within 48 hours.
The condemnation proceedings would require the tenants to vacate the premises until the problems are resolved.
The tenants adamantly were opposed to the condemnation action. The second floor tenant, a lifelong resident, said that he has lived there for 13 years and never has had a problem. He noted that when his father was sick, former Mayor George V. Colella visited his father at those premises.
The first-floor tenant, who has been there for five years, said there never have been any problems at the premises.
Both tenants said that their apartments are at below-market rents and that they have no financial ability to find new housing if they forcibly are removed.
“Please don’t put us out in the street,” pleaded the tenant. “We have no money at all,” she said, adding that her child has mental health issues that could be exacerbated if the family is removed within 48 hours.
Brown assured them that his department will do what it can to work with social service agencies in order to find the tenants new housing, as it has in the past when other properties have been condemned.
The board then voted unanimously to condemn the property.
In another matter, the board voted to join with other communities in the COVID-19 contact tracing collaborative in signing a letter to request training for a contact tracing program to be operated by the collaborative when the state ends its contact tracing program at the end of this year.
The board also voted to put off action on finalizing and signing the Regulations for the Keeping of Bees until its November meeting.