Hookah Can Be Worse Than Cigarettes

Hookah, narghile and shisha are all names for the same tall, exotic water pipes growing in popularity among teens and young college students according to recent studies.

Most commonly called hookah, the pipes employ honey or molasses sweetened tobacco heated by coals. The product is a sweet tasting smoke then passed over a bowl of water filling the lungs more smoothly than a traditional cigarette. That smoothness leads many to believe smoking hookah is less harmful than inhaling a demonized stick of nicotine.

But firing up a water pipe can be even more harmful than taking drags from a cigarette. The typical smoke break lasts about 5 to 7 minutes and 8 to 12 puffs, whereas a hookah session typically runs from 20 to 80 minutes and 50 to 200 puffs.  Those inhalations from the hookah are filled with the same cancer and heart disease causing chemicals as a traditional smoke.

“This is kind of a new phenomenon that can become a public health problem unless we address it now,” says Dr. Wael Al-Delaimy of the University of California—San Diego, the lead author of a study released last month showing increased hookah use among teens. “The rate of hookah users who also smoke cigarettes is alarming.”

One reason that hookah smoking is on the rise is increased availability. Hookah cafés or hookah lounges are popping up more and more in college towns and urban areas. Students who live within 10 miles of a hookah lounge are more likely to know about hookah and to have tried it.

Teens from the North Shore need only get to Kush Hookah Lounge in Skokie or take the Purple Line to Belmont to find such an establishment. Though smoking bans keep cigarette puffs from enclosed public places, hookah lounges fit a loophole in legislation allowing a business that sells tobacco to permit smoking.

However, laws against selling tobacco to minors still apply.

The biggest danger of hookah smoking among teens and young adults is the misperception that it is a safe alternative to cigarettes. Tobacco smoked in hookah does contain nicotine, which leads researchers to be concerned that hookah will act as a gateway to cigarette smoking.

Dr. Erin Sutfin, a sociologist from Wake Forest University in North Carolina and author of a new study about hookah use among college students, suggests parents talk with their children about the fact that hookah is dangerous. She says, “Teens and young adults need to be educated about this, they need to really understand the health risks.”

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