There wasn’t anything unusual about Rose Bashaj and Loretta Dailey’s first hookah session last Tuesday night. Except, perhaps, for the person who recommended the place.
“The doctor we work for referred us here,” says Dailey, a medical assistant, after inhaling smoke from a silver and green hookah pipe at HKAN Hookah Bar and Grill on the South Side. “She said it’s safe and all natural.”
But a recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) casts doubt on those claims, saying hookah is not a harmless alternative to cigarettes. According to the WHO study, which was released in late May, preliminary research reveals some serious misconceptions about the dangers of hookah smoking.
According to the report, hookah smokers “may … inhale as much smoke during one session as a cigarette smoker would inhale consuming 100 or more cigarettes.”
While smoking from a hookah pipe, smoke is filtered through water before it is inhaled, but the WHO denies this cleanses the smoke. The study says it still “contains high levels of toxic compounds, including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals.”
Hookah smoking — also known as waterpipe smoking — originated in India, where the practice dates back at least four centuries. Within the past three years, it has become a popular trend in the Pittsburgh area. HKAN and Sphinx Café in Oakland attract both smokers and non-smokers with their flavored tobacco and bong-like contraptions.
“I like it,” says Dailey, 31, with smoke wafting from her lips. “It’s a natural high without the drugs.”
Even so, health professionals say smokers may underestimate the health risks.
“There is no evidence that smoking hookah is safer than cigarettes,” says Guillermo Cole, public information officer for the Allegheny County Health Department. “Anyone who thinks it’s safer is certainly not basing that on any valid science. These misconceptions are becoming more widespread as [hookah] becomes increasingly popular in the U.S.”
The report also says that nicotine from the smoke can cause addiction.
Local hookah-bar owners and employees acknowledge that any type of smoking can be dangerous, but they say hookah smoking isn’t as hazardous as other kinds of tobacco smoking.
“Smoking is smoking,” says Sphinx Café co-owner Amera Andrawes.
“But hookah is natural tobacco. Cigarette tobacco has scary things in it to get you addicted. With hookah, you don’t get all that junk.”
HKAN waitress Stephanie Woods, 22, likes to distinguish regular tobacco from what is smoked through a hookah pipe. It’s called shisha — a combination of tobacco, molasses, honey and fruit pulp. “All-natural ingredients,” according to Woods.
“There is no tar or extra additives,” she says, smoking a cigarette at the bar. “The only negative ingredient is nicotine, but it’s only a small amount.
“If you’re going to sit by yourself and smoke the whole thing to your head, that’s not good,” she adds. “But that never happens.”
Comparing cigarette smoking to hookah smoking is unfair for another reason, she contends: “You can’t carry a hookah around and pull it out of your pocket like a cigarette.”
Even after the WHO study, health professionals acknowledge the jury is still out.
“There’s more research that needs to be done,” Cole says. “We can’t close the book on it.”
Both Andrawes and Woods say customers new to hookah sometimes ask about its health risks. The two first-timers sitting behind Woods at HKAN are no exception.
“You do wonder if it’s going to be addicting,” says Bashaj, 36, sharing a Wild Berry-flavored hookah with Dailey. “I asked the waiter, ‘Am I going to want to buy a pack of cigarettes after this?’”