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Around Campus: The Hookah Habit: Smoke and Mirrors

Over the past decade, hookahs have become a growing phenomenon and a new ritual of teenage culture. The word “hookah” originated in India, and was first put into English speech by the British. The hookah is a pipe that works by burning tobacco in a bowl with a screen over it, and then sending it through water before delivering it to the user’s mouth through a hose. The use of water in the device is inaccurately believed to make hookahs safer than other forms of smoking, such as cigars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

To the outrage and frustration of health groups, the exotic device is now becoming commonly seen at parties on college campuses and newly-constructed “hookah bars” throughout the country. Their use has also been the subject of a growing public health debate, centering on whether or not it legally qualifies as indoor smoking.

Jane, a college student whose name was changed for privacy, smokes out of a hookah on a regular basis. Once a frequenter of hookah bars, she now smokes at home since it’s cheaper.

The bars, said Jane, are filled with, “all types of people old and young.” She observes that, “a lot of big groups go there for birthdays and other celebrations of the sort.”

Jane’s observation highlights a recent cultural shift: going to a hookah bar has become another public place to meet friends and unwind on a Friday night. Since many hookah bars don’t serve alcoholic drinks, they have become a popular destination for college students under 21.  

With anti-tobacco campaigns focusing heavily on cigarettes and other tobacco forms, many people are left in the dark about the health dangers of these exotic devices.

Pat Folan, director of the Center of Tobacco Control at the North Shore LIJ Health System, says one of the main dangers of using the hookah is that the smoker is exposed to a large amount of carbon monoxide since smoking sessions tend to last for about 45 minutes.

“A typical hookah session,” said Folan, “has the equivalent of about 100 to 200 cigarettes of tobacco smoke.” She also discussed the misleading nature of the flavored tobacco used in the hookahs, remarking that they may trick smokers into believing that it is healthier for them.

Ironically, when asked about her peers’ use of hookahs, Jane said, “I know a lot of hookah smokers that won’t touch cigarettes.”

Second-hand smoke, said Folan, is also dangerous since it comes from two sources: the charcoal that burns the tobacco and the smoke that is blown out by users.

One hazard that Folan pointed out was the increased risk of contracting diseases such as herpes or mononucleosis from sharing hookah pipes. While most hookah bars claim to clean the pipes, some do not. This lack of hygiene opens up a whole new realm of health risks, separate from tobacco altogether.

Other risks include those that accompany the consumption of tobacco, including various cancers, respiratory and blood diseases, as well as nicotine addiction, just to name a few.

The trend has not gone unnoticed by some lawmakers, who have been working on measures to decrease hookah use. A few weeks ago, the Oregon Senate voted to limit hookah lounges by restricting them to only four seats.

Legislation has also been seen in New York, where laws banning the sale of the pipes to minors are being discussed. One politician, New York City Councilman Vincent Gentile, even went as far as to propose a bill that would ban all new hookah bars in 2012.

The real danger of hookah use is the illusion of safety that surrounds it. There is a lack of information about these pipes and young people’s health is suffering because of it. Hopefully, with increased awareness and education, the hookah habit may eventually go up in smoke.