Studies yield mixed results on hookah and e-cigarette health effects

Riley Overend

WEB hookah 2

While there is a common perception among young people that smoking from hookah is safer than cigarettes, recent studies have shown that this might not be the case.

According to a UCSF study earlier this year, hookah smoking actually produces higher levels of carbon monoxide and contains the same addictive properties as cigarettes. In addition, the secondhand smoke is no less harmful.

The study estimated a typical 45-to-60 minute hookah smoking session could be as harmful as smoking a little more than three cigarettes.  However, one California Department of Public Health study claimed that it could be as harmful as smoking 100 cigarettes.

Hookahs are water pipes that contain shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, which produces a smoke that filters through water before being inhaled.  Hookahs originated in the Middle East about 500 years ago, and are popular among teenagers and young adults, especially in California.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in six high school seniors reported smoking hookah in the past year.

“Sarah,” an anonymous senior, started smoking hookah last year and enjoys going to hookah bars.

“I like it for the social part,” Sarah said. “I try to stay healthy and have fun at the same time.”

Hookah bars and lounges have a strong presence in the Bay Area, with at least 17 reported hookah bars in San Francisco alone. While the legal age to enter a hookah bar is 18, some under-the-radar hookah bars, such as Cairo Nights, which was recently shut down, have a reputation for not carding upon entry.

Instead of traveling to San Francisco or Oakland to enjoy hookah, some students have taken to buying their own water pipes.

“Sam,” a senior who wished to remain anonymous, owns a hookah himself, and said he also knows at least five other seniors that own one.

“It’s a good way to vent and hang out with your friends instead of playing video games,” Sam said. “It smells good, it tastes good, and it’s relaxing.”

Sam said he believes that smoking out of his hookah is significantly healthier than smoking cigarettes because his shisha doesn’t contain nicotine.

“It’s definitely way healthier than cigarettes,” Sam said, citing the natural characteristics of the shisha.

Hookah advocates also note that the smoke is less harmful than cigarette smoke because the shisha is merely being heated, not burned. Although the smoke filters through water, the CDC reports that it still retains the toxins that are known to cause lung cancer.

Bob Curry, Coordinator for Marin County’s Tobacco Control Program, also said he is worried about the health effects of smoking hookah.

“There are ingredients in hookah that we know are dangerous,” Curry said. “There are a lot of things in there that are hazardous.”