Blowing Smoke 6/17/19

By Richard Bleil

Confession time. It’s largely my fault that in Rapid City, hookah bars cannot serve alcohol.

Here’s the back story. The governor gave up smoking, and decided that the rest of the state needed to go smoke free as well. I won’t complain; as a non-smoker, it’s certainly a pleasure having meals without the smell of smoke stunting the flavor. So, a state law was passed outlawing smoking in public places, like bars, but, there are exceptions.

Not many, mind you, but businesses that deal in smoke (like cigar lounges and hookah bars) are allowed to have smoking on their premises (as their primary business), but are not allowed to serve alcohol (as this would give them an unfair advantage over traditional bars).

In the city, a Hookah lounge applied for a liquor license on the argument that Hookah is not smoking. See, in Hookah, you put tobacco in a cup, cover it with aluminum foil, and place a hot coal on top of it. Because the tobacco is never lit on fire with an open flame, like cigarettes, cigars and pipes, the tobacco is not burned. Therefore, it’s not really smoke.

Well, honestly, I can burn a turkey, and the house will fill with smoke. Nobody will argue that it is smoke, and the turkey is never on fire, but trust me…it burns, and it is smoke.

The mayor of the time and the chief of police (who was my boss until he became mayor) denied the liquor license, and the owner sued the city, the mayor and the chief. The chief came to me, as the new forensic lab director, and asked me what smoke was, and if I could prove Hookah smoke is, indeed, smoke.

Most chemists are smarter than I am, and have avoided defining smoke like the plague. Idiot me, I took it as a challenge. Historically, smoke is basically particulate matter suspended in the air, and the proof is a beam of light (flashlight, laser, anything really). Because of what is called the Tyndall effect, the beam of light will be dispersed and you’ll see the beam in the air. This was the argument of the industrial hygienist that the city hired but it was very weak. I knew this was an easy proof, but I started thinking deeper.

It took some time, but then I thought of a test. See, I wanted to prove that the tobacco in the Hookah really was, indeed, burning. I set up a trap to pass the smoke through and pick up at least some of the organics as they pass. This can then be dissolved in an organic solvent and tested with a GC/Mass Spec which can identify the components of the chemicals trapped.

We did find the usual stuff; tar, nicotine and so forth, but then we found something unexpected. We found Phytol.

Phytol, you see, is one of the chemicals created when chloroform burns. The most likely source of Phytol is when the chloroform in the tobacco leaves burn. We compared the results with cigarettes, cigars and pipes and found the Phytol in all three.

The study was incomplete. It was one run, and it was several weeks after the chief had spoken with me, so I wrote up a document for internal use only. The idea of the report was to show these preliminary findings and see if the chief wanted a more thorough investigation since it would cost the city resources in materials and analyst time.

I’ll be honest with you, I kind of forgot about the report. I hadn’t heard back, and I assumed the chief didn’t want me to continue the studies. Then…”the” subpoena.

Yup, the internal preliminary report had been submitted as evidence by the defense attorney. As such I was subpoenaed to testify as to the report.

It was interesting. It was a hearing, not a trial, which means there was a judge but no jury. I sat through the entire hearing, and I was the final witness. I was called to the stand after the lunch break, and testified for the remainder of the day by the city’s attorney. The judge called for a break, and first thing in the morning, I was put back on the stand and testified until lunch break by the attorney for the Hookah bar.

I kind of had too much fun. The Hookah attorney tried several tricks but to no avail. A few weeks later, the findings of the judge was released. The judge found in favor of the city, and an overwhelming majority of the discoveries were based either on my testimony or the preliminary report.

It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

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