Hookah bars: Not a safe alternative for cigarettes

May 12, 2008 at 12:37 pm 12 comments

Recently, a “hookah bar” has opened for business in Rochester, NY. Such establishments have been opening up in communities across the US in recent years. Tobacco control experts around the country have been reporting that young people in particular are attracted to such places that offer flavored tobacco, and the ability to use tobacco indoors – even in areas that have “clean indoor air” laws. To get around the laws, they do not serve alcohol or food so they can’t be labeled as a restaurant or a bar. Also, it is consistently reported that the attraction to hookahs is that they are “less harmful” than cigarettes, or not harmful at all because hookahs use unprocessed tobacco.

Tobacco control experts should heighten their efforts to get the word out about the dangers of hookah use however. Consider the following facts.

Recent reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) cast doubt on those claims, saying they hookah is not a harmless alternative to cigarettes. According to WHO, preliminary research reveals some serious misconceptions about the dangers of hookah smoking. Hookah smokers “may inhale as much smoke during one session as a cigarette smoker would inhale consuming 100 or more cigarettes.”

The WHO reports that hookah smoke still “contains high levels of toxic compounds, including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals.” And users still get nicotine, which causes addiction.

There is also the health risk from the by-products from the combustion of a charcoal pellet used to keep the smoking mixture burning in hookahs.

Users are at higher risk for contracting oral herpes and other communicable diseases. The evidence-base for this statement is new and hopefully growing, but consider this anecdotal report: After attending a Hookah bar in March, 2008 in Fort Collins, CO, several students developed mouth herpes, according to a local Infection Control Physician at Colorado State University’s Hartshorn Health Services.

One hour of smoking a hookah exposes users to 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke of a single cigarette, according to a report on BacchusNetwork.org. The smoke also has arsenic, lead, nickel, and 36 times the tar of a single cigarette and 15 times the CO.

Finally, the marketing of flavored tobacco like “wild berry” has been used by the tobacco industry before to lure non-smokers, especially young people, to begin a life-long addiction to their products. Hookah Bars around the country offer such flavored choices.

Tobacco control experts should plan for effective dissemination of the dangers of hookah use.

Anyone thinking about quitting any type of tobacco product can call the New York State Smoker’s Quitline for information and support at 1-866-NY-QUITS (1-866-697-8487), and visit the Smokers’ Quitsite at http://www.nysmokefree.com. Physician offices can ask the Quitline about how they can get free CME training to help their nicotine-dependent patients (or visit http://cvhpinstitute.org/tcc/.)

Scott McIntosh, PhD


Entry filed under: In the News, Oral Health, Substance Abuse, Tobacco Use.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Caravan Trading  |  May 17, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    The WHO report is, at best, unreliable in its findings and should be taken with a grain or two of salt at the very least.

    First, the report fails to mention how the tobacco is processed. Cigarette manufacturers are known to add various chemical substances to the tobacco. In addition to being known carcinogens, these chemical additives hasten and lengthen the addiction to nicotine. Hookah tobacco contains none of these extra substances; the only additives are glycerin, syrup, and flavorings.

    Second, cigarette smokers are very different from hookah smokers. Due to the addictive nature of cigarette tobacco, those who smoke cigarettes take their addiction with them: they smoke in cars, at home, outside in public places, etc. Thus, they are able to feed their addiction almost at will. Hookah smokers, on the other hand, cannot simply pull a hookah out of a pack and light up. Hookah smoking is a social activity that requires planning, preparation, and a specific location for smoking. Thus, most hookah smokers do not engage in the activity at will or as frequently as cigarette smokers do. Whereas cigarette smokers imbibe a cigarette from start to finish on their own, hookah smokers take a puff or two and then pass the pipe on to the next person. Therefore, the average hookah smoker does not ingest the same quantity of tobacco as a cigarette smoker.

    Third, cigarette smokers inhale the smoke, while the average hookah smoker is more interested in the taste of the tobacco du jour and blowing smoke rings than in inhaling the smoke.

    While it is true that smoking of any kind can be harmful to one’s health, it is grossly irresponsible to compare apples to oranges and claim that the results are accurate beyond the fact that they are both fruits.

  • 2. inquiry  |  May 28, 2008 at 3:20 pm

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  • 3. Theresa  |  May 30, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    I also agree with these comments and as for herpes exposure…Lounge carry individual moutht tips and if they share tips that is stupidity on the group just like kissing someone…However lounges do offer many hosed hookahs and multiple tips to protect from transmitting diseases. People get sick from germs on a can bought from a store… I just dont get why people are coming down on hookah smoking when there are tons of people in rochester addicted to drugs and drinking and driving ..so tell me what is the harm of a nice social experience at a hookah lounge where there is NO alcohol and just a nice mellow atmposhere where people can get together without causing trouble or getting crazy. I only wish there was a place like this when I was young because then just maybe I would have gotten in less trouble as a kid.

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