In June of last year, a new, statewide law increased the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old, hoping to produce healthier future generations. E-cigarettes are regulated under the law as well, which also includes hookah. Now, local lounges that offer the flavored tobacco are finding new ways to appeal to the demographic that once made up a large part of their clientele.
“We heard about the law around the same time everyone else did…maybe a little bit before,” said Shane Greene, who manages Fire Temple Hookah Lounge in Turlock. “Just like everyone else that had a hookah lounge around that time, it was kind of a concerning thing because a huge margin of the people that come to smoke hookah would no longer be able to come by.”
Hookah is a water pipe that is used to smoke flavored tobacco, and before the new tobacco law went into effect, hookah lounges tended to be popular hangouts for those between the ages of 18 and 21 who aren’t allowed into most clubs or bars.
According to Greene, the new laws have not only affected Fire Temple’s ability to generate new business among younger customers, but have eliminated some old business as well. Prior to the law, Greene estimated that about 20 to 30 percent of his customers were under age 21. Despite the large number of customers lost, he added that thanks to Fire Temple’s loyal “regulars,” business hasn’t been affected as greatly as other lounges in the area.
“We’ve been around for a while, so a lot of our regulars that we’ve had for years are well over 21,” he said. “I have customers who were regulars back then and are still regulars now.”
To make up for business lost, Fire Temple offers an “18 to 21” menu for customers who are underage but still wish to smoke. Instead of the flavored tobacco typically smoked through the hookah, customers can choose from the underage menu which offers a natural tea leaf for smoking. Available in flavors like “Kali Drizzle,” “Tangerine Feen,” “Red Lightning,” it’s the next best thing to hookah that those who are underage can smoke legally and worry-free. The natural tea leaf contains no tobacco, no nicotine and is safer than the tobacco-ridden alternative, said Greene.
“If I didn’t tell you that it was a regular, non-tobacco product, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” he said. “It’s definitely a lot healthier, but at the end of the day is smoking healthy? No.”
There are still plenty of underage customers who come in to smoke the natural tea leaves, Greene said, but there are many, whom he described as “hookah purists,” that dislike the healthier substitute. While some customers have decided to skip out on hookah lounges altogether because they no longer can smoke flavored tobacco, the natural tea leaves allow Fire Temple to retain some of their customers. But, the true draw for those between the ages of 18 and 21 is the atmosphere.
“What we’ve always provided is just a place for friends,” said Greene. “It’s a place to hang out and an open atmosphere where anyone is welcome.”
Fire Temple, located directly across the street from Stanislaus State on Crowell Road, serves as not only a place for socializing, but one for studying as well. Students come in daily to do homework and prepare for exams, and the new laws haven’t stopped them from doing so just yet, Greene said.
“College students come in and smoke and study,” he said. “I have a regular who is in here almost every day. She gets her hookah, puts on her ear buds, opens her laptop and gets after it.”
Overall, the new laws have not been ideal for Fire Temple.
“It blows,” said Greene. “But, I think to a certain degree we were less affected than many because we do have an older crowd that’s been coming here for eight or nine years.
“We still have a sizeable number of customers, and a lot of it isn’t just the tobacco. A lot of it has to do with our store in general and with how treat our customers. It’s just like any other business.”