Hookah bars growing in popularity, but are they legal?

Hookah bars growing in popularity, but are they legal?
SEATTLE -- Smoking hookah has an allure like little else. And hookah bars are the place to enjoy the rich tobacco most.

A smoker told the Problem Solvers, "It's just a nice way to relax, hangout and spend some time together."

The exotic water pipes filled with flavored tobacco can pack the smokey punch of hundreds of cigarettes. The tobacco is packed into bowls and smoked for upwards of an hour with sweet, fruity or candy flavors. That's part of the appeal. And part of the problem.

Tim Church stands in the courtyard of the Washington State Department of Health. With boldly printed "Tobacco Free Campus" signs near every entrance, it's clear smoke isn't welcome. And it certainly isn't welcome inside -- anywhere.

"If you've got a business where people are smoking inside, it just shouldn't be happening," says Church.

Health is one part of the concern. Washington State passed the smoking ban in 2005 with over sixty percent of the vote.

Since then, hookah bars have been on the rise near college campuses as an alternative hangout with a counter-culture vibe.

The Health Department referenced a survey that showed thirty percent of college students smoked hookah in the last year.

"Youth smoking leads to adult smoking plain and simple," says Church.

Church says the ban applies to hookah bars without question.

Tacoma and Pierce County are going to court to close hookah bars in the south sound. County health workers don't buy the hookah bar excuse that being a private club means exemption from the law. Director of Health for Pierce County Anthony Chen says, "It's a smokescreen to get around, really to get around the law."

In Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, The Cobra Lounge is a hot spot for hookah. After the lounge's lawyers instructed workers not to talk, the Problem Solvers went undercover to see how hookah worked -- and to put them to the test.

Six kids went inside, including two 17-year olds. After a few minutes later, the guys gathered up the ID cards for their group and went to buy a bowl of hookah.

The clerk takes the cards to create "club memberships," but he never bothers to check the pictures to match up to people. Two of those identification cards belong to friends of the 17-year olds in our group.

The clerk sold the group a bowl of tobacco.

When confronted by the Problem Solvers, another clerk declined when offered the opportunity to see our video. He also did not want to do a full interview, but did reveal part of the rationale behind the club's setup.

"We're a private club. That's how we operate. We have members and therefore it is similar to a cigar lounge," he says.

Church emphatically disagrees.

"We just don't believe that's a way around this law," he says.

The state doesn't agree with the club's defense and neither does king county. But that is not Cobra's only concern.

The Problem Solvers have also learned the King County health department is already investigating the Cobra Lounge for violating the smoking ban. It is one of ten clubs over the last five years that have been told to snuff out the smoke. Most of them have closed down, but the investigation hasn't defanged the Cobra.

The state and county can't be proactive and can only do so much. Rules prevent them from even launching an investigation until someone blows the whistle. "When we receive complaints, we send inspectors out to take a look at the situation," said Scott Neal with the tobacco prevention program with King County.

Between previous legal challenges and the current lawsuits in Pierce county---the state is very interested to see what happens.

The Cobra Lounge will face another inspection by the county and could face fines if they don't comply.

For the clubs, this is an issue of interpretation of the law. The state says otherwise.