Hookah Pipes No Safer Than Cigarettes
April 19, 2013

Using Hookahs No Safer Than Smoking Cigarettes

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While the belief that smoking tobacco through a hookah is safer than smoking cigarettes has led the practice to gain popularity on college campuses throughout the US, new research demonstrates that smoke produced by the fragrant water pipe contains a different but no less harmful mixture of toxins.

Writing in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) research chemist Peyton Jacob III, PhD, and tobacco researcher Neal Benowitz, MD, reached that conclusion after measuring chemicals in the blood and urine of individuals who had smoked tobacco through a hookah.

Jacob and Benowitz, both of whom are based at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, said that using a hookah actually exposes smokers to higher levels of carbon monoxide, which makes it especially dangerous to those with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions. It also has higher levels of benzene than cigarettes, a chemical compound which has previously been linked with an increased risk of developing leukemia.

“People want to know if it is a lesser health risk if they switch from cigarettes to smoking a water pipe on a daily basis. We found that water-pipe smoking is not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, nor is it likely to be an effective harm-reduction strategy,” Jacob said Wednesday in a statement. His colleague, Benowitz, added that someone smoking from a water pipe daily faces an increased risk of developing cancer.

The UCSF researchers recruited eight men and five women, each of whom had past experience both smoking cigarettes and using hookahs. Each volunteer smoked an average of either 11 cigarettes or three water pipe sessions each day. The researchers discovered that levels of a benzene byproduct doubled in the urine of volunteers after using a hookah in comparison to after smoking cigarettes.

They also measured the amount of carbon monoxide in their breath over a 24 hour period, and found that levels of the toxic gas were 2.5 times higher after hookah use than they were after cigarette smoking. The researchers attributed the different toxins and the different levels of each discovered in the bodies after hookah and cigarette smoking to the fact that the smokers were imbibing two different substances.

“You´re basically burning a charcoal briquette on top of the tobacco,” Benowitz said, “and most of what you´re smoking is a moist fruit preparation, which is mixed with the tobacco. It smells good and it tastes good.”

“In addition to delivering toxic substances from the charcoal and tobacco, the heat causes chemical reactions in the mixture which produce toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Some PAHs are highly carcinogenic and can cause lung cancer,” Jacobs added.

Water pipe use did lead to a reduced intake of nicotine than cigarette smoking, the researchers said, and those not previously addicted to tobacco use were not likely to become so by occasional use of a hookah (i.e. approximately once per week). In order to account for variations in how a person´s body metabolizes and excretes toxic substances, Jacob and Benowitz had each subject smoke cigarettes and water pipes on different days.

In addition to Jacob and Benowitz, authors of the study include former UCSF physiological nursing student Ahmad Abu Raddaha, PhD; research physician Delia Dempsey, MD; and staff research associates Chris Havel, Margaret Peng, and Lisa Yu. Their work was financially sponsored by the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program and by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).