Hookahs Safer than Cigarettes, Students Mistakenly Believe

Man smoking a hookah. (Image credit: Dreamstime.)

Although smoking a hookah, or water pipe, is an activity that has been performed for centuries, the rapid growth of hookah bars has taken many health officials by surprise.

Hookah bars are springing up everywhere, especially in proximity to college campuses where they’ve found a loyal customer base in young adults.

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center decided to study the fad to ascertain if it is a relatively harmless endeavor, or something with serious health consequences.

“The popularity of hookah smoking among young adults is quite alarming given the potential for negative health effects,” said Erin L. Sutfin, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy and lead author on the study.

“Unfortunately, many young adults are misinformed about the safety of hookah smoking, and some mistakenly believe it to be safer than cigarette smoking.”

As a way to determine hookah use, researchers sent out a web-based survey to a random sample of students from eight North Carolina colleges and universities. In the questionnaire, they asked students about smoking patterns, drug habits, and the students’ knowledge about these activities.

The researchers found that 40.3 percent – more than one-third of the students surveyed – reported having ever smoked tobacco from a hookah, while only a slightly higher percentage (46.6) reported having ever smoked a cigarette. Nearly 25 percent of students reported being current smokers of cigarettes, and 17.4 percent said they actively use hookahs.

The survey results showed that freshmen and males were more likely to use hookahs, and that there was an association between those who used hookahs and those who smoked cigarettes, smoked marijuana, had a history of other illegal drug use, and had consumed alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey.

It was also clear from the results that hookah users, in general, shared a mistaken perception that somehow smoking from a hookah was less harmful than smoking a cigarette. [4 Myths About Hookah Health]

Researchers warn that hookah pipes used in hookah bars and cafes may not be properly cleaned, creating an environment conducive to the spread of infectious diseases.

While research about hookah smoking is still emerging, evidence shows that it poses many of the same dangers that smoking cigarettes does. Among those dangers, hookah smoke contains high levels of toxic compounds, including tar, carbon monoxide, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals.

In fact, smoking from a hookah exposes an individual to more carbon monoxide and smoke than cigarette smokers are exposed to. Hookah smoking also delivers about the same amount of nicotine as cigarette smoking does, which could lead to tobacco dependence. Health effects include lung cancer, respiratory illness, low birth-weight (among infants whose mothers smoked hookah during pregnancy) and periodontal disease.

“This study highlights hookah smoking as a considerable public health concern, especially among young adults,” the researchers said.

The study is published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

This article was provided to LiveScience by PsychCentral.