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Experts say hookah use as harmful as smoking cigarettes

February 25, 2008

By David Crowder / El Paso Times

When her 20-year-old daughter told her she had been Downtown "doing hookah," Elvira Avila said she had no idea what her daughter was talking about.

"She said it was some kind of flavor," Avila said. "I thought it was some kind of shake or fruit.

"My daughter didn't know it was tobacco. She said it was harmless, and it is just a flavor."

That, medical experts and the American Lung Association say, is the urban legend and the hookah myth that many young people believe.

The gentle, hookah smoke that even first-time users can inhale deep into their lungs because it is cooled and mellow contains nicotine, carbon monoxide, heavy metals and an abundance of tar, which is one of the main causes of heart disease and lung cancer.

"One of the reasons hookah bars are so popular is there's the perception that there's a decreased risk for hookah or waterpipe smoking versus cigarette smoking," said Michelle Bernth, spokeswoman for the five-state chapter of the American Lung Association that includes Texas.

Many people who smoke hookah pipes complain afterward about headaches and hangovers, and that alone should be a warning, Bernth said.

"Common sense will tell you your body is not thanking you for smoking," she said. "The science indicates that when you inhale waterpipe smoke, you are being exposed
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to the same chemicals as you are through cigarette smoking.

"It's very important for people, especially youth, to understand it's not a get-out-of-jail card when it comes to the impact on your health."

Dr. Ahmad Hajj, an El Paso respiratory system specialist, has been shocked to see the popularity of hookah smoking spread among the young people in his native Lebanon to California where he used to practice, and to other U.S. cities.

"Any type of smoking is bad, no matter what form or what shape it takes," he said. "I don't know why young people are doing it."

Brennan Appel, an executive with North Carolina's South Smoke, one of the nation's leading distributors of hookah waterpipes and products, estimated there are now more than 2,000 hookah bars operating in the country.

He doesn't dispute that hookah smoking is unhealthy, but he takes issue with the assertions by a medical researcher quoted in a recent U.S. News and World Report article who claimed that a "waterpipe smoker may inhale as much smoke during a single hookah session as a cigarette smoker would inhale by blazing through 100 cigarettes."

He also disputed the researcher's assertion that a typical hookah session can last for 45 minutes or longer and involve 50 to 200 puffs by participants, compared with the eight to 12 puffs one gets from a cigarette.

But Jazz Masoud, a 20-year-old University of Texas at El Paso freshman who enjoys hookah smoking at home with her sisters and out with friends, said one of her sessions can last an hour and a half.

"What I like is the flavor. That's really it," she said. "But I hate the effects that it has on me. It makes you dizzy, and sometimes it'll give you a headache."

Masoud said her parents know she's doing it, but her mother "is not OK about it."

"She just hopes I grow out of it. She doesn't really approve of it, but she knows I don't do anything else."

David Crowder may be reached at dcrowder@elpasotimes.com; 546-6194.