Hookah Smoking Increasingly Popular
September 9, 2013

As Hookah Smoking Grows In Popularity, Health Effects Remain Unclear

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

While habitual cigarette smoking appears to be headed for a long, slow demise, teens and young adults are increasingly embracing the practice of smoking tobacco through a hookah or water pipe. If you live in any urban area in the US, you've probably seen evidence of this trend in the growing number of ‘hookah bars’ popping up.

New research being presented at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Indianapolis has found that hookah smoking is less toxic, but probably just as dangerous as cigarette smoking.

“Young people are very interested in it,” study researcher Ryan Saadawi, from the University of Cincinnati, told Vice’s Motherboard blog. “Cherry apple and bubble gum are more enticing than Marlboro Red.”

According to the study, the major difference between smoking a hookah and a cigarette isn’t how the smoke is filtered – it’s what is actually being smoked. Hookah tobacco, known as shisha, is a concoction of fruit flavor, sugar, and tobacco. To smoke shisha, a gob of the sweetened tobacco is put into a ceramic bowl and covered it with aluminum foil. A hot coal is then placed atop the foil, burning the shisha below and producing a smoke that is inhaled as it passes through an urn of water and a long tube with a mouthpiece at the end.

The sweet flavors and exotic aromas are said to hook young people, and widespread urban legends claim that hookah smoke isn’t as unhealthy as cigarette smoke. The new study did find lower levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and chromium in hookah smoke compared to cigarette smoke. However, the researchers attributed the difference to the makeup of shisha instead of the filtering action of the water that popular myths seem to hold in such high regard.

The study researchers said they tested twelve different types of shisha made in both the US and the Middle East. After analyzing the tobacco, the team discovered that the hookah tobacco product had fewer metals and organic toxins than cigarette tobacco.

However, the researchers pointed out that their findings do not mean than hookah smoking is healthier than cigarette smoking. The team said that a standard hour-long hookah session involves about 200 puffs of smoke, while an average cigarette is 20 puffs. According to the World Health Organization, an hour-long hookah session is roughly equal to smoking five to ten packs of cigarettes. While that may sound extreme, another balancing factor is that hookah smokers tend to smoke much less frequently than cigarette smokers.

Saadawi pointed out that the hookah’s health impacts may have little to do with the tobacco being smoked.

“There’s levels of concern in the charcoal and we’re still looking into the levels of toxicity in the smoke,” he said.

In addition to carbon monoxide, burning charcoal also produces carcinogens known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The charcoal also has metallic content that could end up in the lungs of hookah smokers.

“If you have a lot of people smoking in a closed space, the charcoal could be a problem,” Saadawi said. "All of these things make hookah smoking different from cigarette smoking, and it also makes it difficult to compare the two, which is partly the reason why there are so few studies on the topic," he added.