In what many experts believe is a precursor to smoking, thousands of teens are puffing in flavored smoke at hookah bars across the U.S., an Arab tradition that is becoming a new American adolescent trend. Smoking hookah is feared to be a gateway activity to nicotine addiction, and carries serious health risks due to the amount of smoke inhaled in a session and the harmful substances found in the smoke.
A hookah is a water pipe with several hoses attached. Hookah bars sell several types of flavored smoke for the device, ranging from apple to orange to mango. Young adults can gather around the pipe and puff from the hoses while engaging in conversation.
A Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study conducted via surveys from eight universities or colleges in North Carolina suggests that hookah smoking rates are almost level with smoking rates, and that a link seemed to exist between students who smoked hookah and who also were cigarette smokers, had experimented with marijuana or who had tried other drug substances. Many of the hookah smokers believed it was less dangerous than cigarette use, but many harmful compounds were found in hookah smoke, including higher amounts of carbon monoxide than is found in cigarette smoke.
In a Tobacco Trend Alert printed in 2007, the American Lung Association warns that hookah is compared to a new tobacco fad, and studies suggest that about one-fourth of youth in the 18 to 24 year-old age group have experimented with it. A Florida study says that several middle school-aged students have used hookah, around four percent, and the number is higher among high schoolers, with around 11 percent saying they have smoked from a hookah pipe.
In 2004, more than 300 hookah lounges or hookah bars were opened in the U.S. It’s difficult to determine how many there are in the U.S., as some are listed as coffee or tea houses. The lounges may be located near college campuses, hoping to bring in groups of students to socialize and puff from the pipes that are similar to small chimneys on the lounge tables.
In many states, including North Carolina, hookah lounges are able to avert smoking bans and other regulations by offering herbal-based smoke products. Teens can enter hookah lounges at age 18 in some states. In some cities, leaders have met to discuss their fears about hookah lounges, believing that the dangers of the practice are overlooked.
Some hookah users said they enjoy the flavored smoke on some occasions but also switch back and forth to tobacco products. Hookah smokers may believe the smoke gives them a “high” and some are herbal-based products. Other types of hookah contain tobacco and nicotine, and these lounge owners have said they ask for I.D. and cater mainly to an international crowd.
While some hookah may not contain nicotine, officials from the World Health Organization have expressed fears that people will believe the product is safe. A user who spends one hour at a hookah lounge can breathe in over 100 times the level of smoke they would breathe in during a traditional nicotine smoking experience.
Researchers and policy makers hope to create new programs to regulate hookah use and prevent its use from leading young adults towards cigarette smoking.