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Hookah & College Students: What’s the Deal?

As college students, you’ve probably heard of – or perhaps even tried – a little thing called “hookah.” It could have been at a party, on a sunny day out on the quad, or even at an actual hookah bar in your college town. But regardless, it’s legal! And if that caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland is doing it, it can’t be that bad for you… right?

Wrong. Sorry to break it to all you happy hookah users out there, but in reality the truth about this popular and trendy social activity can be a little foggy…or smoky, rather. But no worries – I’m here to try and clear the air.

Before we go any further, let’s get our facts straight.

What exactly is hookah?

Basically, it’s a water pipe that is used for smoking tobacco (usually flavored), and can come in a single-stemmed or multi-stemmed design (because it’s usually used in groups). Originating in India, hookah has been a popular form of smoking tobacco in the Middle East for centuries, but has just recently been growing in popularity in the U.S. – especially in college towns.

Why does everyone seem to love it so much?

Hookah has three features that make it seem deceptively more delicious—and less harmful—than cigarettes:

  1. When the smoke passes through the water chamber, it gets cooled down before you inhale it. Therefore, you don’t feel the burn in your throat as harshly as you do with a cigarette. This usually lets you inhale a lot more smoke, which creates its own problems. We’ll touch on those later.
  2. As I mentioned before, hookah can be smoked using flavored tobacco. These flavors can get pretty creative – can you say orange cream, tropical mango, mint chocolate, and blueberry muffin? The fact that these flavors come in such delicious varieties makes hookah even more appealing to smokers (at least those with working taste buds). And the yummy flavors make it even easier to inhale large amounts of hookah smoke.
  3. It’s trendy. Hookah bars can sometimes resemble a coffee shop or cute café – comfy couches, dim lighting, live music – plus a cultural atmosphere that adds excitement and interest. They also appeal to a younger crowd because of the exotic, unusual flavors offered. Not to mention they make a great place to hang out for those who are too young to bar-hop.

So what’s so bad about it?

Now that I’ve given you the good news, (blueberry muffin hookah!), here’s the bad news: Smoking hookah is no less toxic than smoking cigarettes. The water that the tobacco in hookah passes through does not filter out the tobacco, and since hookah smokers inhale way more smoke than cigarette smokers do, some argue that it’s at least as bad as cigarettes – if not worse.

Cami Jones, RN, Vice President of Quality and Risk Management at Lewis-Gale Medical Center in Salem, VA, does not think that smoking anything is a good idea, including hookah. “Just the sheer act of smoking inflames the lungs, and that’s how cancer starts,” she says, explaining that since hookah is a type of pipe smoking, it can damage your upper airways and cause oral cancer. “Advertising that there’s ‘fruit’ involved puts a whole connotation with it that isn’t right, because the reality is that it’s very comparable to smoking a pipe.” She also added that it is popular among college students because young people take part in a lot of “at risk behavior, because they aren’t worried about their health yet,” and also because it’s seen as “a social thing.”

The problem with this is that many college students aren’t aware of hookah’s risks. Alyson Klein, a senior at the University of Maryland, owns a hookah that her brother gave her from Israel. She doesn’t smoke cigarettes and says she only uses the hookah a few times a year, but when asked how cigarettes and hookah compare to each other, she says hookah “tastes better,” and health-wise, she doesn’t think “it is nearly as bad for you, because it isn’t straight tobacco.” She had no idea that hookah smokers inhale more tobacco smoke than cigarette users do.

Alyson says she doesn’t notice any problems after a night of smoking, but that’s not the case for Zoe Pagonis, another UMD student. Zoe says “the smoke gets really thick as [she goes] on and it hurts [her] lungs,” and that the next day, she has some trouble breathing. Another student I talked to at James Madison University said he and his friends have trouble walking up hills right after they smoke.

Yes, it’s probably a valid argument that people addicted to cigarettes smoke more frequently than do hookah users, but according to a World Health Organization advisory, a typical one-hour session of hookah smoking exposes the user to 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette. Wow.

Specific Risks of Smoking Hookah

Because hookah has the same hazardous components found in cigarette smoke, it can cause the following:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Respiratory disease
  • Contagious diseases, such as the cold or flu virus or even herpes (as a result of sharing a mouthpiece.)
  • Addiction: Even though hookah has a lower dose of nicotine than cigarettes, it’s still high enough to make you addicted. Studies have also shown that the younger a person is when she begins to smoke, the more likely she is to become addicted to nicotine.

Healthy Alternatives

Sorry – this is kind of a trick section. There aren’t really any healthy alternatives to smoking anything, including hookah. The advice I can give you is to smoke as infrequently as possible, and if you do smoke hookah, to skip every other cycle that’s passed around to you.

If you’re already addicted to nicotine, you can try to kick the habit by using an electronic cigarette, like Blu Cigs, which uses a vaporized solution to let you inhale doses of nicotine through a battery-powered device that looks like a cigarette. They even offer flavored cartridges, which may give you your hookah fix without sucking in all of the bad toxins.

But I’m not dispensing these nuggets of hookah wisdom just for the fun of it—it’s important that you, and all college students, have a better understanding of what you’re putting in your lungs next time you’re munching on some Indian naan and passing around the hookah pipe.

So whether you’re into it or not, I hope you feel like you’re a little more hookah-educated. And now you can also tell all your friends that they don’t actually use blueberry muffins to make it taste like that…

Sources: Alyson Klein, University of Maryland, Senior
Zoe Pagonis, University of Maryland, Senior
Cami Jones, RN, Vice President of Quality and Risk Management at Lewis-Gale Medical Center in Salem, VA
James Madison University Student, Senior
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hookah http://www.fumari.com/flavor-guide

Caitlin Hardgrove is a senior at James Madison University, concentrating in Print Journalism in the School of Media Arts and Design. In combination with her Music Industry minor, she hopes to one day write for a music magazine publication. Caitlin is also a member of JMU’s dance team, The Dukettes, and their dance club, Madison dance. She has written for the university’s bi-weekly newspaper and interned at InSight, a magazine highlighting life in Montgomery County, MD (her home town). Although her study abroad trip to Ireland last summer will be very hard to top, she hopes to live at the beach this summer after she graduates and work for Delaware Beach Life magazine.
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