Despite the city's smoking ban, it still is possible to open a business in Lawrence where indoor smoking is allowed.
City leaders have agreed to allow the Lebanese Hookah Bar to open at 730 Mass., even though traditional bars and restaurants have been banned from allowing indoor smoking for the past two years.
The bar's primary business is the selling of Lebanese tobacco, which is then smoked on premises in a water-pipe device called a hookah.
"When we came here from the Middle East, we really wanted to open something for the Lawrence people, but by the time we were ready, the smoking ban came along," said Bassem Chahine, who owns the business with his mother, father and brother. "We had to make sure we could still do it."
The city has said yes, and Scott Miller, a city attorney, said the reason why is simple: The business isn't a bar. It actually is a tobacco shop, and those establishments are exempt from the ban.
"No matter what its name is, the way the business is organized makes it a tobacco shop," Miller said.
The business does not serve alcohol. The only nontobacco products that are sold are chips, hummus, soda, coffee and tea. But Chahine said very few of those products will be sold because customers receive a free drink and order of hummus with each $10 tobacco purchase.
The small amount of nontobacco sales allows the business to still be considered a tobacco shop, because the definition of a tobacco shop allows for an "incidental" amount of nontobacco sales.
What constitutes incidental, however, is not specifically defined by the city, Miller said. He said if the business began selling a significant amount of nontobacco products, it could be reclassified as a restaurant or coffee shop that would be required to comply with the ban.
Some Lawrence bar and restaurant owners were bewildered by the decision.
"I thought the whole idea behind the smoking ban was to protect employees," said Doug Holiday, who is an owner of Bigg's BBQ Sports Bar, 2429 Iowa. "I've never really understood the rationale behind allowing it in tobacco shops anyway. I think it should be all or nothing."
Allowing tobacco shops to permit smoking is fairly common with smoking bans across the country.
Chahine said he wasn't trying to find a loophole to the city ordinance, and he doesn't want to get wrapped up in a debate about the smoking ban.
"I think it is a good chance for people to really learn a lot about our culture and how we treat people," Chahine said.