Tobacco smoke from cigar and hookah lounges is endangering the health of customers and workers in adjoining businesses throughout San Diego County, according to the American Lung Association.
The nonprofit organization said the polluted, dangerous air seeping into these local businesses is a serious public health problem. The group is urging licensing agencies to close what it calls a “loophole” in the California’s non-smoking laws.
“There isn’t any safe exposure to secondhand smoke,” said Deborah Kelley, advocacy director for the American Lung Association’s local San Diego chapter. “That level of (tobacco) particulate matter is an instant threat to anyone who already has heart disease. And even if it’s just burning your eyes or nose or causing your eyes to water, those are all acute effects.”
Kihyun Kim invested his savings to buy Do-Re-Mi Korean Restaurant in Kearny Mesa four years ago. He told NBC 7 Investigates the smell of tobacco smoke from Excalibur Cigar Lounge, next door to his restaurant, is seeping through the walls, ceilings and air vents.
“I only smelled it a little bit during the night time, when I first opened, and I thought it was coming from the front door,” Kim said.
He said the smell becomes progressively worse as more cigar smokers visit the lounge.
In mid-January, American Lung Association experts used equipment to test the air inside Do-Re-Mi.
Dr. Neil Klepeis, an environmental health scientist, helped supervised the air quality testing inside the restaurant and analyzed the results. He said the test confirmed there is smoke inside the restaurant.
"I was struck at how high the (tobacco particulate) levels are,” Klepeis said. He is an expert in second-hand smoke exposure and adjunct professor of public health at San Diego State University.
On a Friday night, when Lung Association staffers said they counted at least 20 cigar smokers inside the cigar lounge, Klepeis said test results revealed smoke levels inside the restaurant spiked to 10 times the acceptable exposure level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Comparable to what you might get if you smoked a cigarette in a car, or you smoked a cigarette in a small bedroom," he said.
Klepeis said the Lung Association tests -- conducted around the clock for eight days and nights -- show the smoke is coming from Excalibur, not the Do-Re-Mi kitchen.
"Every time the cigar bar was open, you see high levels. Every single time,” Klepeis said. “And as soon as the cigar bar closes, you see the levels going down. So that's a smoking gun, so to speak."
Excalibur’s owner declined to answer specific questions about the problem, but in a written statement said a “malfunction” in its ventilation system caused tobacco levels to spike inside the restaurant.
“An upgrade to the extensive ventilation system was completed with building management supervision in January 2016,” according to Excalibur’s statement.
Click here to read the full statement.
According to Kim, the strong odor of unwelcome cigar smoke continues and is hurting his business. "The customers tell me, 'We can't stay here because of the kids,’ and they get up and leave," he told NBC 7 Investigates.
Distaste for the cigar odor is apparent online. On the website Yelp, one reviewer said, "the smell of smoke has been kind of suffocating.”
"It made the place smell like an ashtray," wrote another.
"It always smells like cigarette smoke...it will be extremely disgusting for you," another diner warned.
Fans, vents and air filtering machines in both businesses have not helped. Kim said his landlord told him to install an exhaust fan above the front door.
Klepeis said that would not help because the smoke is most likely leaking through electrical and lighting outlets and other gaps in the common wall and spaces where the wall meets the ceiling. Klepeis said the only possible, partial solution would be to demolish and completely rebuild those structures.
Kim said he has spent hours on the phone, trying to get help from a local or state agency. NBC 7 Investigates called around too and learned there are no regulations limiting the seepage of smoke from a licensed cigar or hookah lounge into a neighboring business.
"No, I'm not surprised,” Kelley said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Kelley said her and other no-smoking advocates are working now to close what she calls a “loophole” in California law.
According to the law, a business is permitted to allowing smoking inside if they do not serve food or alcohol.
NBC 7 Investigates found Do-Re-Mi is one of more than 100 San Diego businesses that could be sharing common walls, ceilings and vents with cigar, tobacco or hookah lounges, according to a list obtained from the Lung Association.
Those businesses include a downtown youth hostel, a Clairemont Mesa jewelry shop and a dental office in Mira Mesa.
Kelley said cigar, tobacco and hookah lounges should be physically isolated from other businesses in special "stand-alone" locations. "They can only be good neighbors if they have no neighbors," she said.
NBC 7 Investigates also has learned the Excalibur lounge serves liquor to customers under a valid state liquor license. The California Attorney General and the state Legislative Counsel have both opined that any licensed tobacco lounge that serves alcohol and/or food will have voided its non-smoking exemption.
Excalibur's owner disagrees. In the statement to NBC 7 Investigates, the owner said, “we adhere to and exceed the requirements of every license, permit, and regulation for our industry."
A San Diego Police Department spokesman said the department is looking into this apparent violation.