Think Smoking A Hookah Is Harmless? Think Again

By Shawn Dwyer 05/29/14

A new study shows that just because you think it's safe, doesn't mean it is.

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According to a study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, just one night smoking a hookah can spike nicotine levels sky high and lead to a drastic increase in cancer-causing agents.

Gideon St.Helen, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Clinical Pharmacology and the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, led the study and found that there were drastically increased levels of nicotine, cotinine, tobacco-related cancer agents, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the participants’ urine.

"This study reports systemic intake of tobacco-specific nitrosamines and VOCs after a typical water pipe-smoking session in a hookah bar setting, thus making the findings generalizable to most water pipe users in the United States," St.Helen said.

The study focused on 55 healthy people between 18 and 48 years old who had previous experience smoking hookahs. The participants were told to refrain from smoking for a week prior to having a “before” urine sample taken. They were then instructed to spend a night at the hookah bar of their choice before providing their “after” urine sample.

After examining the participants second samples and comparing them to their first, researchers saw a 73-fold increase in nicotine levels; a four-fold increase in continine levels, a metabolite of nicotine; a two-fold increase in NNAL, which can cause lung and pancreatic cancers; and a 14-91 percent increase in breakdown products of VOCs like benzene and acrolein, which can cause cancer as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

"I have seen entire families, including young children, smoking water pipes. I have even been offered a smoke by my friend who thought water pipe smoking was 'totally safe,'" St.Helen said. "Our study provides evidence that water pipe smoking leads to significant intake of tobacco-related addictive and harmful substances, and is therefore not without risk, particularly among children and youths."

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.