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The Middle Eastern hookah, or water pipe, has become hip here. It's smooth, fans say, and safer than cigarettes - though health authorities call that hot air.
By Adam Fifield
Inquirer Staff Writer
Under a low, tawny light, encamped around an ornate brass table, they took turns, each sucking through a small hose and inhaling deeply. After a savored pause came a slow, neat stream of smoke.
"The flavor is really good," remarked Bryan Rindner, 19, relishing his last drag.
Heads nodded in agreement as the next round of puffing began.
Rindner and three friends, all college students from New Jersey, had gone to the Little Marakesh restaurant in Dresher, Montgomery County, on a recent Friday night for Moroccan food - and for the exotic languor of the hookah.
Long popular in the Middle East, the tall, extravagant water pipe with the serpentine hose is used to smoke flavored tobacco. In the last few years, it has become a fixture in many U.S. restaurants, clubs and bars, attracting a multiethnic crowd of men and women, most in their 20s or early 30s.
"It's hip. It's fashionable... . For some people, it's really sexy," said Dia Sawan, 39, whose Byblos restaurant in Center City is one of more than a half-dozen places in the region that serve hookah.
Nationwide there are an estimated 1,000 hookah joints. And that's not counting places such as Old City's Club One 14 with hookah theme nights and private events organized by hookah party planners.
Though sometimes mistaken for illicit drug paraphernalia, hookahs are legal. The pipes, which conjure up images of the caterpillar in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, have grown in popularity despite a decline in cigarette smoking and the proliferation of municipal smoking bans.
The hookah's lure stems, in part, from the novelty of a new cultural experience and the intimate nature of group smoking sessions.
Iraq war veterans who developed a taste for hookahs overseas may have helped stoke demand for them back home, said Brennan Appel, director of Southsmoke.com, a Florida-based online store for hookah pipes and tobacco.
"Soldiers go over there, they don't know about the product. They try it, they come back to the U.S., and they bring hookah back with them," Appel said.
"The smoking is smooth. It's not harsh," he said. "It doesn't smell up your clothes."
The array of tobacco flavors reads like a Ben & Jerry's menu. Aficionados can choose from apple, peach, apricot, cherry, chocolate, mint, mango, strawberry, plum, sweet melon, banana, grape, jasmine, coconut, mixed fruit, pistachio, cappuccino, and any number of combinations. More variations are possible by adding honey or fruit to the water or substituting wine, juice or milk.
Tobacco is placed in the pipe's small bowl and heated with a piece of charcoal. A session generally costs between $10 and $20, and the pipes themselves - depending on size, style and material - can be purchased for about $30 to more than $200.
At Little Marakesh, Rindner and his friends opted for Key lime-flavored tobacco.
"We get together for the single purpose of smoking hookah," said Rindner, who owns three pipes, including one that stands nearly four feet tall.
"It's the centerpiece of my room," the marketing major said. "We all sit back and smoke it. It's very nice."
Rindner's buddy Matt Brinn, 18, credited hookah with earning him new friends.
"It really brought us together in the beginning of the year," he said. "We all came together because we smoked hookah."
The Aromatic House of Kabob in Old City put hookah on the menu in summer 2004, and business "is getting bigger and bigger," owner Helen Mojgani said. "We're getting phone calls all the time, and they ask about hookah."
Mojgani said the devices help facilitate socializing. "It's a great conversation piece," she said.
Perched on bar stools last month during "Hip Hop Hookah Night" at Byblos, Kavita Kumar and Monika Shah shared a pipe filled with apple-flavored tobacco. Kumar, who is of Indian descent, was introduced to the hookah at age 14.
"I don't smoke cigarettes," said the Temple University dental student, 22, as she exhaled a silvery funnel of smoke.
"That's gross," agreed Shah, 21.
Many of his hookah customers don't smoke cigarettes, said Byblos' Sawan, who grew up in Lebanon and was introduced to hookah through a Jordanian friend.
The problem with cigarettes "is the chemical they put in," he said. "This is all natural, simple." And, he later added, "refreshing."
Hookah venues are prohibited by law from offering pipes to customers younger than 18, and proprietors must check IDs.
It is unclear whether New Jersey's smoking prohibition, which takes effect in April, or antismoking legislation before Philadelphia City Council will include hookah establishments. New Jersey cigar bars that earn at least 15 percent of their revenue from tobacco products will be exempt from the ban.
The American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization warn that hookah smoke contains carbon monoxide and nicotine, and exposes users to the same risks as cigarette smoking, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease.
Many users believe hookahs are less dangerous than cigarettes, noting that the pipe is not smoked as often and that its smoke is filtered by water.
As far back as the 1500s, a physician in India told the emperor that if tobacco smoke was passed through a receptacle of water, "it would be rendered harmless," said Thomas Eissenberg, associate professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied the health effects of water pipes.
That's a myth, Eissenberg said. "There is absolutely no data to suggest it's not hazardous."
Some researchers believe the pipes could be more unhealthful than cigarettes. According to the World Health Organization, a hookah user who partakes for one hour typically inhales as much smoke as he or she would get from 100 to 200 cigarettes.
"It seems like each generation adopts a vice to distinguish it from previous generations," said Jane Henley, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society. "Ten years ago, it was cigars."
Hookahs could also act as a "gateway" to other tobacco use, Henley said.
Such concerns don't dampen the ardor of hookah enthusiasts such as P.J. Meara, 24, of Allentown, N.J. He and a group of friends first tried the water pipe three months ago at Byblos and have come back several times a week since.
Said Meara, "That's all we've wanted to do."
Likewise Bryan Rindner. Back at Little Marakesh restaurant, he and his friends were making plans for later in the evening.
"As soon as we leave here," said Rindner, "we're going back to my apartment to play guitar and smoke the hookah."
Where to Smoke Hookah
Aromatic House of Kabob
113 Chestnut St., 215-923-4510
Byblos Restaurant & Bar
116 S. 18th St., 215-568-3050
Club One 14
114 Market St., 215-733-0999
(hookah on select nights)
Fez Moroccan Cuisine
620 S. Second St., 215-925-5367
Jaba Kabob & Grille
138 Chestnut St., 215-922-1129
1825 S. Limekiln Pike, Dresher, 215-643-3003
622 S. Sixth St., 215-627-3344
For information on the etiquette and health risks
of hookah smoking, go to http://go.philly.com/hookah