Hookahs, also referred to as water pipes, are gaining popularity among teenagers in the United States, with many false reports claiming the practice is a safe alternative to regular cigarette smoking. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), hookah smoking is not safer, and hookah smokers may actually inhale higher concentrations of toxins commonly found in cigarettes.
“Waterpipe smoking is a real epidemic in the world and it’s picking up in the U.S. too,” said Elie Akl, associate professor of medicine, family medicine, and social and preventive medicine at the University at Buffalo. Akl released a report showing as many as 10 percent of university students are smoking the flavored tobacco.
Hookah smoking is traditionally a group activity, with a single mouthpiece passed from person to person, and its social appeal is one of the reasons adolescents are picking up the habit.
A long hose, a mouth piece, a molasses chamber, and a water bowl make up the basic hookah. They are devices designed to facilitate smoking of flavored tobacco, and because the tobacco smoke passes through water and becomes moist, smokers are able to inhale more smoke than they would from a dry cigarette.
The experience is often described by university students as relaxing and pleasant.
“It’s a very interesting public health puzzle. The same chemicals – in one form [are] reviled by many people, but the same people will go across the street and take it in this different format,” said to CNN Dr. Brian Primack, whose recent research indicates 1 in 3 college students have smoked hookah at some point.
Over half of hookah users, says Primack, do not smoke cigarettes.
A common misconception in the population is that the water chamber in a hookah filters out some of the toxins in the tobacco. In reality, tobacco smoke is no less toxic used in a hookah when compared to cigarette smoke.
Because of the length of a hookah smoking session, which is considerably longer than the time it would take to smoke a cigarette, dangers of the habit are identical to those from chronic cigarette smoking and include:
- Oral cancer
- Lung cancer
- Heart disease
- Tobacco dependence
- Secondhand smoke illnesses
- Low birth weight in babies
Tobacco-related illnesses are not the only concern with hookah use. The spread of infectious diseases from sharing mouth pieces is a possibility, and there is no way to be certain how well a hookah establishment is cleaning the equipment.
Know the facts
Weeding through the inaccuracies when it comes to hookah information is important for young adults.
Anyone planning on visiting a hookah lounge should be aware that:
- Hookah is smoked for a time period of 45 minutes to an hour. During that time, the tobacco smoke delivers 36 percent more tar into your body than a cigarette, 70 percent more nicotine and 15 times more carbon monoxide.
- Waterpipe smokers are 5 times more likely than non-smokers to show signs of gum disease.
- Men who smoke hookahs have 5 times the risk of developing lung cancer than do non-smokers.
- A single session of smoking hookah delivers 100-200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a regular cigarette.
- Hookah is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.
- The charcoal used to heat hookah tobacco increases health risks by releasing carbon monoxide, toxic chemicals and metals.
- The water in a hookah does not lessen the dangers associated with tobacco smoke.
“Awareness campaigns need to take into account that waterpipe smoking is increasing, especially among youth, and that it may be a gateway to cigarette use in adulthood,” said Akl. “The problem is that some people are advocating the hookahs, or waterpipes, as safer than cigarettes. It’s perceived as less addictive. And because in the hookah, the smoke comes through a column of water, which is supposed to filter the smoke, it’s been seen as safer than cigarettes and other forms of tobacco consumption.” These assumptions are false.