Adam Bliss was drained from defying the statewide smoking ban for four months, facing $6,400 in fines, dwindling revenue and a $3,900 property tax bill when he snuffed the flame on Hookah Bliss at the end of April.
A new store, a head shop dubbed Smoke Rings, replaced it at 418 W. Franklin St., this week.
Bliss, the most outspoken opponent of the ban, was out of work for more than a month. He was saddled with debt from his first, and perhaps last, business, when he got a job working for the family of one of his former Hookah employees.
He now retrieves dead bodies from hospitals and dresses them for funerals. He's working toward an embalming license.
"Business had been hurt so badly, we just couldn't make enough money," Bliss says. "I was late paying my property tax and the landlady shut me down."
Fortunately, he won't have to pay the fines, which he accrued at $200 per day from March 22 to April 20, county records show. The Orange County Health Department waived the penalties when Bliss closed.
"The goal of the enforcement is to protect human health, and what we are interested in is compliance in the law rather than what an administrative penalty will do," says Tom Konsler, Orange County environmental health director.
The department also acknowledged that the law could have been confusing for hookah bar owners.
The smoking ban in restaurants and bars extended to Bliss' business. He had to stop selling alcohol or prohibit people from using hookahs. He chose neither at first, because he was angry that cigar bars and country clubs were granted exemptions while hookah bars were not.
As the ban's implementation neared, Bliss brazenly dared the health department to give him a ticket. He planned to file a lawsuit for discrimination and harassment.
Ultimately, Bliss decided to comply. On April 1, he quit selling beer. A week later, after being told by the Orange County Health Department that he still wasn't following the law, he surrendered his ABC permit.
"The law is tied to the ability to sell, the ABC permit, rather than whether someone is actively selling alcohol while smoking is going on," Konsler says.
Bliss disagreed, but he still turned in his permit on April 20. He was always seeking loopholes, though, even contending that hookahs don't meet the definition of lit tobacco. And he found another loophole. He could still allow customers to bring their own malt beverages or unfortified wine in brown bags, which does not require a permit, only the owner's consent, says Agnes Stevens, a spokeswoman for the state ABC Commission.
So Bliss charged a $3 cover, provided ice buckets and cleared away the bottles. The smoking ban doesn't apply to clubs that allow brown-bagging but don't have an ABC permit, Konsler says.
"Basically people were still drinking in the bar, and they were still smoking, and suddenly I was in compliance," Bliss says.
But alcohol sales had accounted for 25 percent of his business. His ledger was crippled. He says he couldn't afford to pay the tax bill, a requirement of his lease. That was that.
Weeks later, a "Grand Opening" banner flaps in the breeze at Smoke Rings, new to town but not to the area, with stores in Raleigh and Greensboro. Ornate water pipes fill four cases along the wall. Pipes abound. There are hookahs and shisha for sale, too.
"I find it just ironic as hell; that's the most polite thing I can say about it is, 'Oh yeah, head shops are OK, but apparently, legitimate hookah bars were not'," Bliss says. "I don't want to dump on head shops, because I know guys who run head shops, too, and I think they should be allowed, but it's kind of an ironic twist."
Meanwhile, Konsler says the number of complaints has fallen since Jan. 2, when the law went into effect. No Orange County business has been warned or cited since Hookah Bliss closed, according to the N.C. Division of Public Health Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch.
A UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health study released this week shows that the 72 percent of North Carolinians surveyed support the ban. Predictably, 85 percent of the ban's proponents are nonsmokers, the study found. The group queried 698 respondents and had a 5 percent margin of error.
Yet it's unlikely nonsmokers who want to avoid smoke in restaurants would enter a hookah bar, which caters to smokers. Bliss' business, launched three years ago, was unfortunately "caught up in this buzzsaw," Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange) said as the law went into effect. Kinnaird listened to Bliss' concerns when the smoking ban bill was debated, but she never introduced language that would have exempted hookah bars.
Now Bliss is campaigning against Kinnaird and the politicians who sponsored the legislation. "I will do my best to make sure they get replaced by I don't care who," he says. "I really don't, as long as they're out of work. I don't care who we elect."
Bliss still smokes hookah with his former employees once a week in Raleigh and hopes he can find someone with the start-up capital to open a new bar.
"I have a hookah shop and coffee bar in a box," he offers.
That's probably where legislators would like it to stay.