Hookah becoming more popular despite health concerns

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Tucked away in a backroom of On The Wildside, an alternative goods store in Aggieville, a sanctuary for lovers of exotic smoke awaits.

The back wall showcases at least six tall, ornate smoking devices, and up to 40 varieties of “shisha,” or flavored tobacco, can be found in small plastic bags across its countertops.

These might seem like products commonly found in Cheech and Chong films, but this social smoking activity is legal and rapidly growing in popularity among Manhattan residents.

Luke Nestler, senior in mass communications, has sold hookah products at On The Wildside for more than two years and said he has seen an unmistakable increase in demand for the intricate smoking devices as well as its shisha.

When he began working at the store, Nestler said On The Wildside only offered three flavors of shisha and stocked one or two hookah pipes. Now, he said the store routinely carries 40 flavors of shisha and has the ability to order hundreds of varieties of the flavored tobacco upon request. He also said the store now must order new hookahs every week to keep up with demand.

So why has the popularity of smoking hookah picked up so recently?

“I think a major part of it is that everyone’s going to Iraq,” Nestler said. “[Smoking hookah] is a big thing over there. A lot of the soldiers caught onto it over there, and with Fort Riley being just down the street, it’s really caught on here – kind of passed on by word of mouth.”

Hookah originated in the Middle East and is a single or multi-stemmed water pipe that works by inhaling tobacco smoke through a hose. The smoke, which usually takes a cool and thin form, is regulated by the water and a filter in the pipe that slow the speed of airflow. Once inhaled, the user is able to taste the smoke from the flavored tobacco leaves, which Nestler said is covered with glycerin or molasses and usually is fruit-flavored.

The objective of smoking hookah, Nestler said, is to “take pulls at your leisure, enjoy the flavorful smoke, pass it around and see who can make the best smoke rings.”

Zach Pistora, senior in political science, said he has been smoking hookah socially for the past four years, once or twice every two weeks on average.

“It’s something to do with friends and is kind of a social networking tool,” he said. “Everybody’s around sitting together, talking and passing [the pipe] around. It’s enjoyable and makes you feel pretty relaxed.”

As far as demand for the pastime goes, Pistora said he believes the recent increase is merely a trend.

“I think now we’re more connected globally than we were before to start getting different traditions and hobbies and leisure activities,” he said. “It’s a culture-spread thing, [but] I think it’s kind of trendy right now. Having the opportunity to do this ‘new’ stuff is kind of exciting. It’s like when the iPhone comes out – it’s a popular thing for a while, but people might lose interest after a while.”

But for now, demand is high, and both Pistora and Nestler said Manhattan should consider capitalizing on the popular pastime.

“Manhattan would definitely benefit from having a hookah bar in town,” Nestler said. “I can’t tell you how many people have been in [On The Wildside] and couldn’t believe we didn’t have a hookah bar. I think it’d be great, to be honest, especially because of the demand.”

Lawrence is home to several hookah bars, which are flourishing. Vassem Chahine, owner of the Hookah House – Lawrence’s top peer-rated hookah bar – said business has been great since he opened in September 2006 after emigrating from Lebanon.

“The best thing about hookah bars is the experience and the culture,” Chahine said. “You come here with friends, talk and meet other people. It’s all about the social aspect of it.”

Chahine said in his home country, it is mainly older men who smoke hookah, but in the U.S., he has noticed younger generations taking more of an interest in the activity. And thanks to word-of-mouth, he said even he has seen the House filling up faster than usual. Chahine said he, as well as other friends and family members, have found business to be best in college towns.

But the leisurely pastime does not come without risk. Because the activity is tobacco-based, there are significant health concerns.

According to an article in a December 2005 USA Today, the belief that smoking hookah is less harmful than smoking cigarettes because of the water filter is simply a myth.

Thomas Eissenberg, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of a recent hookah study, said in the article that hookah, which is typically smoked for about 45 minutes, delivers 36 times more tar than a cigarette, 15 times more carbon monoxide and 70 percent more nicotine.

A recent World Health Organization advisory also stated that a typical one-hour session of hookah smoking exposes the user to 100-200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette. Even passing though water, the flavored tobacco smoke still contains high levels of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals.

Though many users are aware there are some health risks, the difference between smoking cigarettes and smoking hookah is this, Chaine said: Typical cigarette users smoke multiple times a day, every day. Typical hookah users, he said, smoke on average once or twice a week or less.

“It’s harmful, but you don’t smoke hookah driving or walking in the street, either,” he said. “It’s not good for you, but I haven’t heard of anyone dying from it, either.”

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