April 20, 2014

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

A look at mainstream hookah smoking.

Amy Keller | 7/1/2010

Smoke rings

The most recent Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, which tracks smoking among public middle and high school students in Florida, found “alarmingly high” rates of hookah use among Florida adolescents, with rates among high school students approaching figures reported by samples of university students. In 2007, only 9.3% of female high school students and 12.3% of male high school students had ever tried hookah smoking. By 2009, 14.2% of high school girls and 17.3% of high school boys had smoked tobacco through a water pipe at least once.

Meanwhile, research indicates hookah smoking is likely every bit as dangerous as cigarettes. Studies, including a 2005 report published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, have found that a single hookah smoking session delivers up to four times the nicotine, 11 times the amount of carbon monoxide and 72 times the tar of a single cigarette.

Wasim Maziak, an associate professor at the University of Memphis’ School of Public Health who received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study what he calls the hookah “epidemic,” says hookahs are a far more insidious threat than cigarettes. “Unlike cigarette smoke, which is hot, the hookah smoke is usually a lower temperature because it is cooled as it passes through the water. It’s not hot, so it’s less irritating. It’s smooth and it’s also, with the flavor of the fruit, it gives that misperception of being lighter smoke.”

The idea that the water is filtering out any toxins is a myth, says Tracey Barnett, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Behavioral Science and Community Health who has studied the hookah-smoking trend. “Again, that’s pretty naive,” says Barnett. “Cigarettes have filters too, but we know you can’t filter out all the toxins associated with it.”

Barnett says the fact that it’s the charcoal that is burning — not the tobacco — only adds to the danger. In fact, she says, the burning charcoal is actually “more harmful” and emits “a lot more carbon monoxide” than the tobacco. “You aren’t allowed to barbecue inside with charcoal because the carbon monoxide rate inside your apartment would just go through the roof. Well, the thing that’s sitting atop all those hookahs is a little piece of charcoal, and the carbon monoxide they’re giving off, including secondary, are really high levels,” says Barnett.

Meridian Hookah Lounge
Owner Marc Karimi of the Meridian Hookah Lounge in Oviedo (above) calls hookah cafes “the new coffee shop.” Owners say federal legislation that would raise the tax on hookah tobacco by 775% would put them out of business. [Photo: Brook Pifer]

Hookah business owners like Marc Karimi, of Meridian Hookah Lounge in Tampa and Oviedo, respond that the hazards of hookah smoking are overblown and that much of the research to assess the health risks of hookah smoking is flawed. For instance, in some of the studies, the coal is placed directly onto the shisha, causing it to combust, rather than just smolder. “If it got to the point where it’s burning, not smoldering, nobody here would smoke that.”

Bajalia, however, says he’s in no position to say whether hookah smoking is any safer or riskier than smoking cigarettes. He says he made a decision five years ago to provide customers at Casbah Cafe with a warning card that explains the dangers of hookah smoking. “So many people don’t know what it is. They ask me, they’re looking at the little charcoals on top and ask me, ‘Is that what we’re smoking?’ A lot of people don’t have a clue. So we actually say, ‘Hey this is a tobacco product. You are smoking. We believe this contains the same risks as smoking.’ ”

Hookah opposition

While hookah bars have gained wide acceptance in many areas of Florida, some communities and landlords aren’t so welcoming. Bajalia says that when he looked into opening a hookah cafe in St. Augustine several years ago, the city council told him not to bother. “They said, ‘Absolutely not. We’ll shut you down.’ ” In Tampa, some strip malls near the University of South Florida have posted signs stating that smoke shops or smoke lounges need not apply to lease space.

Hookah Smoking Among Florida High Schoolers
Smokers 2007 2008 2009
Non-Hispanic whites 13.0% 17.4% 20.3%
Non-Hispanic blacks 3.4 3.4 4.9
Hispanic 11.8 14.5 16.1
Other 18.0 15.6 18.4
Females 9.3 12.5 14.2
Males 12.3 14.4 17.3
Source: Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, Florida Department of Health

Earlier this year, Soloman Wassef encountered significant opposition from the city council when he tried to obtain a beer and wine license for the hookah lounge he planned to open in downtown Lakeland. Even the former mayor showed up at a commission meeting to protest the establishment. While the commission ultimately approved Wassef’s plan to open the Hookah Palace, it was with one caveat: Only those who are 21 years and older can enter.

Lakeland City Commissioner Justin Troller, an American government teacher and wrestling coach at Lakeland Senior High School, is no fan of underage smoking but says city officials can’t deny licenses to people who want to operate legal businesses. Morever, he says he’s hoping that the Hookah Palace might help to “bring a diverse crowd” to the downtown that the city has spent millions renovating. “Here’s an opportunity to bring something new and different.”

But Howard Wiggs, one of the city commissioners who opposed the Hookah Palace, says he believes his colleagues made a mistake. While the city didn’t have any sort of mechanism to veto the hookah bar on the basis of the smoking issue, Wiggs says they could have chosen not to permit an additional bar to come into the downtown. “Approval of this bar sent an inappropriate message. The American Cancer Society has thoroughly evaluated this form of tobacco and it is harmful.”

“It’s 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.”

— Amber Gordon, 20, Tampa

In addition to a backlash from health experts and landlords, hookah bars also face tax issues. Eight years ago, soon after the advent of the hookah craze, the tax rate on tobacco in Florida was 25% of the wholesale price. Today it’s at 85%. The hookah industry, meanwhile, is keeping a close eye on federal legislation, H.R. 4439, which would raise the tax on hookah tobacco by 775%. The “Tobacco Tax Parity Act of 2010” is intended to bring tax rates on pipe tobacco, which includes hookahs, in line with the higher rates imposed on rolled tobacco. But hookah proprietors say that a 250-gram (8.75 ounce) box of hookah tobacco that currently retails for $5.99 would cost more than $20 if this bill passes, which could put them out of business.

Manny Franco, general manager of the Blue Lizard Hookah Lounge near USF in Tampa, says such a tax increase would make it impossible to eke a profit out of the hubble-bubble. If that happens, he says he plans to offer only herbal hookah, a nicotine-free product made from tea leaves.

With that, Franco packs a bowl with strawberry/lemonade-flavored, herbal hookah and ignites a coal. “The hookah, I think is kind of secondary,” he says. “People come here to socialize.”

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