Honing in on the hookah

March 8, 2012 | 11 a.m.

College students are attracted to the more social and natural form of smoking but should know the risks

Views | Kristina Busch

Honing in on the hookah

Hookah is a growing fad on college campuses.

The Arizona Department of Health Services ran a tobacco education and prevention program ad campaign that said, “Tobacco. Tumor causing, teeth staining, smelly, puking habit.”

But what if you could smoke tobacco in a way that was more “natural” and included flavors such as grape mint, pomegranate, bubble gum and even honey? Many people have defended the belief that smoking hookah is actually “healthier” than smoking cigarettes because it does not contain the chemicals that are in cigarettes. However, there is some evidence that smoking hookah is actually significantly worse than smoking cigarettes.

A hookah is a water pipe that contains a smoke chamber, bowl, pipe and hose. Once the flavored tobacco is heated, the smoke passes through cooled water and then passes through a rubber hose to a mouthpiece, where it is inhaled.

Practiced for centuries throughout the Middle East and originating in India, hookah smoking is both a habit and a way of life. Today hookah smokers can find hookah lounges worldwide, in cities ranging from Anchorage, Alaska, to Melbourne, Australia. Hookah lounges in the United States tend to serve primarily college students. Hookah shops are emerging in college towns nationwide, and there is one in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota.

Although the smoke from a hookah is less harsh on the throat than that of cigarettes, there is some evidence that smoking hookah is potentially more harmful than smoking cigarettes.

“People who use these devices don’t realize that they could be inhaling what is believed to be the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes in one typical 30-60 minute session with a waterpipe, because such a large quantity of pure, shredded tobacco is used,” said Christopher Loffredo, Ph.D., and Director of the Cancer Genetics and Epidemiology program at Georgetown University Medical Center.

College students tend to like smoking hookah because it’s very social. The atmosphere tends to be one that students describe as “chill” and “relaxed.”

One Bethel freshman considers smoking hookah part of the culture he was brought up in. “One side of my family is Arabic,” he explained, “and smoking hookah is part of family gatherings.” Like many college students, he has smoked hookah in a social setting with friends as well.

“I think that cigarettes themselves are probably actually worse in the long run,” said the student. “People seem to be more prone to addiction when they have the ‘immediate reward’ and availability of smoking a cigarette, while smoking hookah is a more social and drawn-out process.”

Whether one decides to smoke hookah in a social setting is obviously a decision that involves a number of risks and benefits. Anything in excess has the potential to be harmful and one must decide to smoke or not on one's own terms and values.

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