Are health dangers hiding behind this smoke screen?

Are health dangers hiding behind this smoke screen?

The lounge scene is full of flavorful aromas, dim, sexy lighting and mesmerizing glows. Friends gather to unwind in this exotic and comfortable setting, complete with low, comfortable sofas and brightly colored pillows. The epicenter of the hip and relaxing scene is an elaborate glass and metal pipe- an ancient Middle Eastern social tradition called a hookah. Once a privilege reserved for social elites, this centuries-old tradition has transformed during the past decade into a trendy pastime for young adults nationwide.

Because of the water-filtering mechanism in hookah pipes, many people believe that smoking hookah is a fun and safe way to socialize with friends and to enjoy the flavorful and relaxing sensations of exotic tobaccos without detrimental health effects.

Hookah involves burning flavored tobacco on coals. The smoke from the tobacco then passes through the water of a pipe so it cools and “purifies” before a person inhales. The smoke is inhaled through long hoses that are attached to the pipe and are often passed around and shared among users. The tobacco comes in many exotic flavors, from the fruity to the savory. They are given provocative names that resemble cocktails such as Sex on the Beach or Kama Sutra to appeal to a young and trendy clientele.

Many people who may otherwise not smoke cigarettes are willing to partake in hookah because of the perceived harmlessness. Recent studies show, however, that smoking hookah pipes may be as dangerous and detrimental to a person’s health as smoking cigarettes. State legislators, college officials and health advocates across the nation have begun to shift the war on tobacco to the hookah front by introducing bills that would ban or limit hookah bars and also expand indoor smoking laws to include hookah pipes.

The cool, sweet and aromatic hookah smoke seems harmless compared to the hot, pungent smoke from cigarettes. The sweetness, however, is dangerously misleading. According to the World Health Organization, a hookah smoking session may expose the smoker to more smoke during a longer period of time than when smoking a cigarette. In fact, studies have said that the smoke inhaled from a typical hookah session is equivalent to smoking anywhere from 20-100 cigarettes.

The belief that the water in a hookah pipe purifies the smoke that is inhaled is a misconception. Researchers have found hookah smoke to contain tar, heavy metals and other carcinogens. Though most research regarding hookah smoke is relatively new and evolving, preliminary reports have found evidence linking hookah smoke to the similar detrimental health effects of smoking cigarettes, such as pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease and complications during pregnancy.

Because the tobacco in hookah is heated on charcoal, smokers also expose themselves to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. One study found that patrons leaving hookah lounges had carbon monoxide levels more than three times higher than patrons exiting traditional bars and significantly higher carbon monoxide levels than an average cigarette smoker. Even hookah lounge patrons who did not partake in the pipe still had significantly elevated carbon monoxide levels that were equivalent to that of cigarette smokers, compelling evidence of the dangerous impact of second hand smoke from hookah pipes.

Smokers often use hookah pipes communally, with the hoses attached to the pipe passed from one smoker to the next. The sharing of hookah pipes has been linked with the spread of herpes, tuberculosis and other infections.

Though the cool and exotic vibe of hookah smoking may have great social appeal, it is important to keep in mind that behind the sweet aromatic smoke lays health risks in disguise. Just as the popularity of cigarette smoking met opposition in the 1960s by evidence of detrimental health effects, we should expect even more evidence linking hookah to similar effects in the near future.

Story appears in the 9/16/2011 edition of The Hullabaloo,

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