Hookah: Up in Smoke

Photo by AJ Trela
photo by AJ Trela

From campus parties to smoke shops, Hookah is back.

Five college students crowd around a glass hookah pipe in a small, two-bedroom apartment. There is a feeling of contentment in the air as the group discusses whether they should lead off with the double apple or nectarine flavor, and whether tutti frutti should be worked into the mix.

During this 45-minute smoking session, a buzz settles in on the smokers. Lightheaded and perhaps a bit dizzy, they sit back on the 1980s couch and continually pass the hookah hose to and fro.

Whether it’s bell-bottomed jeans, a rock group’s reunion tour, or even yo-yos, the decade that featured the end of the Vietnam War and the emergence of disco seems to keep popping up in popular culture. In the past few years, even a pasttime of the 1970s has become popular: hookah.

Hookah, a water pipe used for smoking tobacco, can be seen all across Marquette University’s campus, from smoking groups that converge outside the Alumni Memorial Union to gatherings at friends’ apartments. Hookah bars have also seen an uptick in popularity in recent years. A quick search of Google maps shows ten such places in the Milwaukee area alone.

Amir Rasouli, owner of Milwaukee’s Shi Chai Hookah Lounge, said his business has been steadily growing in the past few years from a combination of increased advertising, enthusiastic recommendations from happy customers and the general increase in hookah’s popularity.

Rasouli estimates that 10 percent of his annual business comes from first-time customers.

According to one study released in April 2011 by the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, hookah smoking among college students is almost as prevalent as cigarette smoking. Seventeen percent of students surveyed reported that they actively smoke the water pipe.

But with new-found popularity comes renewed scrutiny of hookah’s health effects.

According to the Center for Disease Control, a person will typically inhale 100 to 200 times more smoke during a one-hour hookah session than from a single cigarette, which usually contains a filter that blocks many toxins.  The CDC also says that hookah has just as many toxins in it as cigarettes.

Erin Sutfin, the lead author of the Wake Forest study, said in a press release that hookah users seem to have a skewed view of the effects of smoking out of a water pipe.

“The popularity of hookah smoking among young adults is quite alarming given the potential for negative health effects,” Sutfin said. “Likely because of the pleasant aroma and taste, users may inhale more deeply over a longer period of time.”

Rasouli also emphasized the agreeable taste of hookah in explaining the popularity of his shop, but said people come to Shi Chai as much for the atmosphere as they do the flavored tobacco. Patrons often watch TV, talk with friends or even do their homework, he said.

Taylor Hays, nicotine dependence specialist at the Mayo Clinic, said despite the lack of credible studies of hookah, it’s pretty clear that smoking from water pipes is detrimental to one’s health. One study, Hays said, found that people exiting hookah bars had far higher levels of carbon monoxide in their bodies compared to patrons exiting a tavern.

“This means they inhaled large amounts of smoke during their stay in the bar, even more than cigarette smokers in a tavern,” Hays said in an email. “So, knowing the effects that inhaled tobacco smoke has on lungs, blood vessels and heart among cigarette smokers, we assume hookah use over a long period will result in the same types of adverse effects.”

Despite these health hazards, hookah smokers do not seem to be overly concerned with the side effects of tobacco. Hookah has a cult following of sorts, with its users vigorously defending the practice.

Case and point is the online Hookah Forum and Shisha Discussion Bulletin Board, with more than 8,000 members and hundreds of thousands of comments on topics like, “Who makes the very best Shisha Tobacco?” to “Is a hookah bar really profitable?” (General consensus among posters: not really).

Marquette students are among these hookah enthusiasts.

Curtis Taylor, a junior in the College of Business Administration, said during warmer months, he will smoke hookah outside as often as once or twice a week. Besides the enjoyable taste, Taylor said he smokes hookah because it’s relaxing and doesn’t give “a huge buzz.”

“I’m Lebanese, so it’s a cultural thing,” Taylor said. “Since I was 15 or 16, I’ve been smoking with family. It’s part of dessert, part of the meal.”

Josh Gerritts, a junior in the College of Health Sciences, also mentioned the social benefits of smoking hookah. He said his roommates often break out the water pipe when friends are around.

Both Taylor and Gerritts waved off concerns of the cancerous effects of smoking hookah.

“Everyone always mentions the health effects,” Gerritts said. “But those same people will go out and binge drink three times a week.”

No amount of cajoling could convince Taylor or Gerritts to admit any sense of apprehension about hookah’s side effects. There wasn’t much coverage of the topic on the hookah forum either.

And even if hookah smokers do start feeling antsy about tobacco’s side effects, there’s always that water pipe sitting on the table to calm them down.