The Hidden Harms of Hookahs

June 17th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

As hookah bars grow in popularity, so do concerns about the health risks.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I’ll admit to a moment of surprise last week when I was driving through the city of Centerville, Utah and passed a hookah supply store. Perhaps it was the context that threw me; this bedroom community to Salt Lake City was settled – and is still mostly populated – by Mormons, and until a couple of years ago, the city didn’t even have a Starbucks.

Then again, I feel like I missed the proliferation of hookah bars in the U.S. in general. I returned from living in Kuwait a couple of years ago, where shisha cafes – as they’re called there – are generally the domain of men only, who go there to talk business and socialize in the evenings, and suddenly it seemed they were everywhere. Every college town I visited had its local hookah lounge. Had I just not noticed before?

Turns out, I did miss the hookah’s meteoric rise in popularity, particularly among college-aged kids. According to a new study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist  Medical Center, 40.3 percent of students from eight North Carolina colleges and universities reported having smoked tobacco from a hookah, while only a slightly higher percentage (46.6) said they’d ever smoked a cigarette. A surprisingly high 17.4 percent of students surveyed said they regularly use hookah pipes.

The mistaken impression, says the survey, is that smoking the flavored tobacco through a water pipe is less harmful than inhaling the acrid smoke of a cigarette. In fact, according to a 2005 World Health Organization study, because a typical hookah session lasts an hour or more (with smokers inhaling deeply), a session can be the equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes. A recent New York Times article cited that study, which also found that hookah smoke contains tar, heavy metals and other cancer-causing chemicals, as well as a University of Florida study that points to the charcoal (which you use to heat the tobacco for the pipe) as a culprit in dangerously high carbon monoxide levels, even for people who spend time in the lounges without actually smoking. “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,” writes the Times’ Douglas Quenqua.

Now lawmakers are taking aim at the bars, with some cities, such as Boston, ending exemptions in indoor smoking laws that allowed hookah smoking, and state legislators in California, Connecticut and Oregon are also introducing bills that would ban or limit hookah lounges.

As you might expect, the news of anti-hookah legislation drew plenty of criticism from readers, with complaints about limitations on personal freedom, and resistance to the idea of a “nanny state.” Still, some suggested that hookah smokers should pay a premium for health care.

The Atlantic Wire’s Eric Hayden says that the story is just the latest example of The Gray Lady chiding readers the way it has for years. The Times, he says, “will issue friendly reminders until the message is received.”

But if, as studies suggest, shisha smokers still harbor a misconception that flavored tobacco isn’t harmful, is it so bad if the Times does do a little bit of chiding? And as for legislation against it – are you for or against?