Do Your Homework on Hookahs

Author: Sarah Aldridge, MS

“Meet you at the hookah lounge” sounds like a safe way to spend your college weekends or after-work downtime with friends. But do your homework on hookahs before you inhale that seductive, sweet-tasting smoke.

Hookah history

Hookahs, or water pipes, have been around since ancient Persia and India were settled. They gave people, mostly men at that time, the chance to share a relaxing experience and shoot the breeze. All that was needed were a fuel source to heat tobacco, a sweetener such as honey, a water-filled bowl and a hose to draw in the scented smoke.

Hookahs today

Nowadays, hookah bars and lounges are cropping up near college and university campuses, attached to Middle Eastern restaurants and in trendy retail areas across the US. They give teens and young adults a place to gather in groups, sharing a hookah session. Hookah sessions can last 30 minutes to upwards of an hour, with smokers choosing enticing tobacco flavors such as mint, cappuccino, chocolate, vanilla or watermelon.

The shredded tobacco leaf, called shisha, is heated by wood cinders or charcoal, carried to a bowl filled with water, and sometimes other liquids such as wine. The vaporized tobacco smoke is drawn into the user’s mouth via a rubber hose with a mouthpiece.

Prevailing myths, persistent truths

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), many users believe hookah smoking is safer than cigarette smoking. They reason that the water in the bowl and the long hose filter harmful substances. Others perceive that because the smoke isn’t inhaled directly, as with cigarettes, that it’s safer and not addictive.

However, smoker beware. Research indicates that hookah smoke and its heat source can be hazardous to your health. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), charcoal used to heat the tobacco can release into the air tar, carbon monoxide and metals and cancer-causing chemicals at high rates. Further, the shisha and its smoke contain toxins that are known cancer-causing agents in the bladder, lungs and mouth.

The vaporized smoke you inhale also has significant amounts of nicotine, according to the ALA. Levels of nicotine, the addiction-causing agent in tobacco, register 250% higher in the blood of hookah smokers after only one 40-45-minute session.

Plus, smoke volume is an issue. During a one-hour hookah session an average smoker puffs 200 times, vs. 20 times for a cigarette. The CDC says the difference is 90,000 ml of smoke from a water pipe compared to 500–600 ml for a cigarette. Your exposure to carcinogens is much higher with hookahs because of the time factor—45 minutes vs. 5-10 minutes to smoke a cigarette, the CDC adds.

The social aspect of hookah smoking also is risky. Sharing the hookah mouthpiece makes you vulnerable to communicable viruses, such as hepatitis and herpes, and tuberculosis, says the ALA.

So, the next time somebody invites you to that popular hookah lounge near campus, you might want to suggest a karaoke club or all-night diner instead.