Hookah bars, a long-time feature of Middle Eastern life, have been cropping up in cities in the US with large Arab populations including Jersey City, where I teach in a small college. I’ve occasionally heard my students talking about going out to smoke hookah. Jersey City indeed has a large Arab population but college students elsewhere have been increasingly patronizing hookah bars or smoking hookah in fraternity houses and elsewhere, often in the mistaken belief that smoking hookah is less dangerous than smoking regular cigarettes.
They’re very much in error on this point. A recent survey of 3,770 students at eight universities in North Carolina found that more than 40 percent had smoked hookah at least once — just a bit lower than the percentage of students who had tried a cigarette. Notes the New York Times:
The ornate glass and metal water pipes are used for smoking an aromatic blend of tobacco, molasses and fruit known as shisha….
Many young adults are misled by the sweet, aromatic and fruity quality of hookah smoke, which causes them to believe it is less harmful than hot, acrid cigarette smoke. In fact, because a typical hookah session can last up to an hour, with smokers typically taking long, deep breaths, the smoke inhaled can equal 100 cigarettes or more, according to a 2005 study by the World Health Organization.
According to that WHO study, the water in hookah filters out less than 5 percent of the nicotine. The dangers pile up:
Moreover, hookah smoke contains tar, heavy metals and other cancer-causing chemicals. An additional hazard: the tobacco in hookahs is heated with charcoal, leading to dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide, even for people who spend time in hookah bars without actually smoking, according to a recent University of Florida study. No surprise, then, that several studies have linked hookah use to many of the same diseases associated with cigarette smoking, like lung, oral and bladder cancer, as well as clogged arteries, heart disease and adverse effects during pregnancy. And because hookahs are meant to be smoked communally — hoses attached to the pipe are passed from one smoker to the next — they have been linked with the spread of tuberculosis, herpes and other infections.
Legislators in California, Connecticut and Oregon have introduced bills to ban or limit hookah bars; Boston and Maine have ended exemptions to their indoor-smoking rules that had opened loopholes for hookah bars to operate. As hookahs have become a fixture in dormitories and fraternity houses, more colleges and universities including Louisiana State University, Baylor University, George Mason University, Lehigh University and others plan to expand their anti-smoking policies to include hookah. The University of Oregon is going so far as to ban all tobacco products on campus next year.
I rather suspect that these legislative and regulatory measures will just make the allure of smoking hookah more attractive to college students — which doesn’t mean I might not casually mention some of the above dangers the next time I hear someone in a classroom say they’ve been smoking hookah.
Photo by RyAwesome