September 2, 2014

Pipe Dreams: Hookah smoking is cool, but is it safe?

A look at mainstream hookah smoking.

Amy Keller | 7/1/2010
Meridian Hookah Lounge
Florida has dozens of hookah bars in the state’s bigger cities and college towns — including this Meridian Hookah Lounge in Oviedo, near the University of Central Florida. A recent Florida Youth Tobacco Survey found “alarmingly high” rates of hookah use among Florida adolescents. [Photo: Brook Pifer]

On a recent night out in Tampa, 26-year-old Tara Wasserman and a handful of her friends nestle into a dark, plush booth at her favorite hookah hangout, the Meridian Hookah Lounge. For $12 apiece, Wasserman and her friends can sample a variety of sweet tobaccos, smoked through the water pipe at the center of the booth, and stay until the lounge closes at 3 a.m.

The specially cured “shisha” tobaccos come in flavors like guava, strawberry and coconut. Wasserman and friends choose a blend, and servers place a sticky lump of shredded tobacco into a small bowl that’s connected by a stem to the pipe’s water-filled glass base. A piece of foil is placed atop the tobacco, and atop the foil goes a hot coal that heats, but does not ignite, the tobacco. Hoses, each attached to the stem of the hookah, snake across the table.


Smoking a hookah — also known as a “narghile” or “hubble-bubble” — involves drawing tobacco smoke through water in a glass-filled base. A loophole in Florida’s 2003 ban on indoor smoking enables hookah bars to offer food along with hookahs. [Photo: Michael Heape]
Along with the tobacco, each smoker gets a plastic tip that she attaches to a hose; sucking on the hose pulls air past the coal and creates a sweet-tasting smoke that’s inhaled after it bubbles through the water. The silky smoke gives off a pleasant aroma similar to sweetened incense or potpourri.

Wasserman and her friends chit-chat about life and listen to music as they puff away, sometimes competing to see who can blow the best smoke rings. Like many hookah devotees, Wasserman, a teacher, is middle-class, mainstream — and wouldn’t touch a cigarette. She likes the “chill atmosphere” of the hookah lounge. The shisha tobacco, she says, “will give you just as much yummy nicotine as cigarettes, without the nasty taste and rat poison.”

A centuries-old Indian apparatus that spread to the Middle East, the hookah is a cousin of the water pipes and bongs often used to smoke marijuana. The beginning of the hookah bar trend in Florida appears to date to 1999: When Jason Bajalia opened the Casbah Cafe in Jacksonville’s upscale Avondale neighborhood, he incorporated hookahs and flavored tobaccos into his theme.

“We started off as just a little Middle Eastern cafe. We’d serve Turkish coffee and pastries and fresh fruit juice and hookahs,” says Bajalia. “It got pretty popular pretty quick and we evolved into a full-service restaurant with entertainment, belly dancing and Middle Eastern musicians, and it just kept growing from there.”

“Relative to a single cigarette (about 500 milliliters of smoke), a single water pipe use episode (about 90,000 milliliters) is associated with 1.7 times the nicotine, 6.5 times the CO, and 46.4 times the tar.”

— “Waterpipe Tobacco Smoking: An Emerging Health Crisis in the United States,”
American Journal of Health Behavior, 2010

Today, Florida has dozens of hookah lounges where anyone over 18 can join in the hookah smoking. Most are in larger cities like Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville or near college campuses. There are at least eight hookah bars or restaurants in Gainesville near the University of Florida, and at least two in Tallahassee near Florida State.

While the typical college student-oriented lounge features plush couches, dim lighting and free wi-fi, a more authentic Middle Eastern hookah experience is available at places like Al-Aqsa in Tampa. Attached to a Middle Eastern grocery, the sparsely decorated cafe attracts a mostly Muslim crowd that gathers under fluorescent lights to play cards or watch TV and smoke.

Bajalia says hookah smoking has grown decidedly more mainstream. When he opened the Casbah Cafe 11 years ago, most of his customers were Middle Easterners or “military guys” from the nearby naval air station who had developed a taste for shisha while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, he says, Casbah attracts people from all walks of life and all age groups. “We have symphony-goers sitting next to Middle Easterners sitting next to a local Jacksonville family.”

How trendy have hookahs become? The Ritz-Carlton on South Beach hosts a “Hookah Lounge Happy Hour” each Thursday and Friday night at its swanky DiLido Beach Club. In Fort Lauderdale, the Hookah Express will deliver a hookah directly to your home, condo, pool or beach. The company’s “rent-a-hookah” service includes two bowls of tobacco and costs $20.

Hookah Smokers
Anyone 18 or older is allowed into most hookah bars. Smokers typically pay $10 to $30, which includes tobacco, a plastic tip for the hose and use of the pipe. It costs hookah bar owners “less than $1 to make a bowl” of tobacco, says Brennan Appel, director of the online hookah store SouthSmoke.com. [Photo: Michael Heape]

Aiding the hookah trend is a loophole in the state’s 2003 law than bans indoor smoking. The law defines smoking as “inhaling, exhaling, burning, carrying or possessing any lighted tobacco product.” With hookahs, however, the tobacco is merely heated by the coal — it’s never technically on fire. And so hookah bar operators can serve hookah and chicken kebab side by side, an act that would be illegal if their patrons were smoking cigarettes or cigars instead.

Perhaps the biggest factor working in favor of hookahs is their cachet — the perception by fans like Wasserman that smoking flavored tobacco lacks the stigma that cigarettes carry and that the practice of smoking it is a milder experience, and therefore safer, than cigarette smoking.

Twenty-year-old Amber Gordon from Tampa describes hookah smoking as “really smooth. It’s not harsh. It’s not anything comparable to a cigarette. There’s no bad aftertaste. There’s no bad smell on your breath. Honestly, it’s like smoking candy.”

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