Don't Get Too Attached to That Hookah

By Dirk Hanson 04/11/11

A host of recent studies refute the notion that smoking tobacco from a hookah—essentially a water pipe—is any safer than smoking cigarettes or glass pipes.

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We typically think of hookahs as exotic multi-hosed, three-foot water pipes featured in books and movies about ancient Turkish caliphs and evil Arab viziers. But for the past few years the hookah has been enjoying a popular stateside revival. Hundreds of Hookah bars have sprung to life in major North American cities, supported  by college-age smokers and former tokers. But not everyone is celebrating their arrival. Last Friday, the Connecticut Legislature’s Public Health Committee passed a measure that would ban any hookah lounges from operating in the state--in an attempt to prevent hookah bars from circumventing smoking laws, much like “cigar bars” have attempted to do. More young people are becoming convinced that hookahs are a “safe” alternative to cigarettes, joints, or conventional bongs. But just because your dried vegetable matter gets detoured through a vessel of water and a long hose, doesn’t mean the bad stuff gets filtered out. According to researchers at the University of California San Diego, “longer hookah smoking sessions, combined with increased smoke volume, makes it potentially more dangerous than cigarettes.” And a just-released study from the University of Florida shows that people leaving hookah bars have carbon monoxide levels three times higher than people leaving regular bars where smoking is allowed. Finally, Mayo Clinic notes that there is an extra threat of “infectious disease” posed by using public hookahs that may not have been cleaned properly. Are you sure you don't want that pack of Camels instead?

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]