Friday, October 7, 2011

Is Hookah Smoking Really as Dangerous as Some Say?

When I first started smoking hookah, I believed that it was definitely safer than smoking cigarettes or a regular pipe. I never really thought much about this until the news picked up on a recent WHO article regarding health risks of hookah tobacco. All the news stories that I read were citing this one article, using it as proof that hookah smoking is dangerous and it should be stopped. Intrigued, I read it myself.

As it turns out, it's not a scientific study at all. It's actually an advisory note, the purpose of which is to recommend that the scientific community do more research on the matter. The note is short, and contains an overview of the history of hookah smoking, as well as the parts of a hookah pipe and their use. There is also a small section on health risks from hookah smoking that implies that hookah smoking is more dangerous because you inhale more 'smoke'.

The thing is, no one knows if hookah smoke has the same composition as cigarette smoke. The hot smoke passes through the water in the vase, and it's a reasonable assumption that some of the water evaporates, cooling the smoke and causing it to contain much more water vapor than cigarette smoke. The water in the vase may make hookah smoke more like steam, with fewer potentially harmful chemicals. No one knows yet, so it's unreasonable to assume that hookah smoking is more dangerous because you inhale more 'smoke'.

The note also says that the water in the hookah vase actually does filter out some of the nicotine, and hookah shisha has been proven to have significantly lower amounts of nicotine and tar than the tobacco used in pipes and cigarettes (p. 3). The news articles I read took this to mean that hookah smokers will therefore smoke more hookah to feel the effects of nicotine. Really though, hookah is just too much of a hassle for someone who only wants nicotine. If that's all they wanted, they could just smoke a cigarette.  No messy shisha, no waiting for the coals to be hot (or dealing with the smell and taste of instant light coals), and no cleanup at the end. Really, why pay more for shisha and take the time to make a hookah if all you're looking for is nicotine?

In the end, I agree with the authors of the note, but not the sensationalized media coverage. The authors of the note recognize that there isn't nearly enough scientific evidence to draw a conclusion one way or the other, and that more needs to be done. I believe that more research will prove that while smoking is never completely safe, smoking hookah is significantly less dangerous than smoking cigarettes.

As the debate on the dangers of hookah smoking continues to heat up, there are a growing number of people who believe that herbal (tobacco free) shisha makes a great substitute for hookah tobacco, with none of the negative effects of regular shisha. Herbal shisha is made from an herbal substitute for tobacco leaves, and can be bought in a hookah store. Generally, other leaves that smoke in a similar fashion to tobacco leaves are best. I've heard of people using mint leaves as a substitute for hookah tobacco, but I've never tried that variation myself. The most common herbal shisha is made from tea leaves and is covered in flavored molasses, just like regular hookah tobacco.

There are several obvious advantages to herbal shisha. Herbal shisha does not contain tobacco, and therefore does not contain any nicotine. Without nicotine, herbal shisha does not have any addictive properties. Also, because there is no tobacco in herbal shisha, there is less tar, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals than in regular hookah tobacco. This means that the long term health effects of herbal shisha are less than those of typical shisha made from tobacco. However, there are health risks associated with inhaling smoke of any kind, though the risks may vary.

I've smoked my fair share of both regular hookah tobacco and herbal shisha. There are two major differences in these two different varieties of shisha. The first thing you notice when you smoke herbal shisha for the first time is that the smoke clouds aren't as big. The second thing you notice is that it doesn't give you the same buzz that smoking hookah tobacco does. This should have been obvious, since herbal shisha doesn't contain tobacco, but somehow it caught me by surprise the first time I smoked herbal shisha. Herbal shisha is covered with the same varieties of flavored molasses that hookah tobacco is, so smoking it tastes nearly the same as smoking regular shisha.

In short, the jury is still out on the health risks of smoking any kind of hookah shisha. For the hookah smoker who would prefer to avoid nicotine, herbal shisha is a fantastic substitute for conventional hookah tobacco.

I should mention that I'm not a medical professional, and what I've written above is merely my opinion. At this point, it's probably obvious that I'm a little biased; I've smoked hookah for years, I write a blog about it and I have a hookah store. However, my goal is never to misinform or distort the truth. I've just seen a lot of hype recently about how horrible hookah smoking is, and I thought that someone should point out that some of the claims made seem a bit exaggerated. I'd like us to make an informed decision based on all the facts. 

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