Is smoking hookah safer than smoking cigarettes?

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The hookah has been around for almost 400 years, but it’s recently become very trendy, especially on college campuses. The American Lung Association even named hookah smoking the first new tobacco trend of the 21st century.

The hookah is also known as a waterpipe because the smoke passes through water then into tubes from which it is inhaled. The tobacco used in hookah is called narghile, shisha, or goza. It is often flavored and has a sweeter taste and aroma than regular tobacco.  Hookah tobacco is not self-igniting so charcoal is placed on top of it to help it burn.

There’s a misconception among many hookah users that it is not as dangerous as smoking cigarettes.  The sweet smell and taste can make people think it’s not “real” tobacco, and the fact that hookah lounges have been allowed to stay open in many cities despite public bans on smoking sends a mixed message that it is somehow safer than other forms of tobacco.  Many people also believe that because the smoke passes through water before being inhaled that all of the toxins and carcinogens are somehow filtered out.

But don’t fall for the hipster hype! Hookah tobacco is still tobacco and it contains nicotine and all of the other harmful substances that cigarettes do.  Not only that, but the burning charcoal placed on the tobacco emits by-products that are inhaled along with the tobacco smoke (you might as well light a cigarette on your grill and keep your face buried in the burgers for 20 minutes).  And when it comes to preventing harmful substances from reaching the lungs, the water in a hookah works just as well as a filter on a cigarette.  In other words, NOT.  AT.  ALL. 

So before you follow all the skinny jeans and vintage hats to the local hookah lounge, consider these facts:

  • Both the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization (WHO) have stated that second-hand smoke has been shown to pose a serious threat to nonsmokers and smoke from waterpipes is no exception.
  • Several studies have shown that hookah smoking increases the probability of developing lung problems, heart problems, cancer and nicotine addiction.
  • There have been reports of users inhaling and exhaling high carbon dioxide levels (as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency) during hookah sessions.  So hanging out in a hookah lounge can expose you to unsafe levels of CO2.

Bottom line? Smoking hookah carries the same health risks as smoking cigarettes. 

Cheryl Czapla, Med IV
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University

One thought on “Is smoking hookah safer than smoking cigarettes?

  1. Electronic cigarettes: Are they safer than tobacco? Or are they a high-tech way to hook a new generation on a bad nicotine habit? Nobody knows yet. Research into the effects of e-cigarettes lags behind their popularity. But ready or not, the era of e-cigarettes is here. It’s a booming, billion-dollar industry – on track to outsell tobacco products within a decade.
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