By Jeffrey Norris | USCF.edu | April 17, 2013
Smoking tobacco through a hookah is a pastime gaining popularity among the college crowd, but many of them mistakenly believe that using the fragrant water pipe is less harmful than smoking cigarettes.
In a new study at UC San Francisco, researchers measuring chemicals in the blood and urine concluded that hookah smoke contains a different – but still harmful – mix of toxins. The findings are published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.
UCSF research chemist Peyton Jacob III, PhD, and UCSF tobacco researcher Neal Benowitz, MD, both based at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, say hookah use exposes smokers to higher levels of carbon monoxide, especially hazardous to those with heart or respiratory conditions, and to higher levels of benzene, long associated with leukemia risk.
"People want to know if it is a lesser health risk if they switch from cigarettes to smoking a water pipe on a daily basis,” Jacob said. “We found that water-pipe smoking is not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, nor is it likely to be an effective harm-reduction strategy."
And compared to non-smokers, Benowitz said, “If you are smoking from a hookah daily, you are likely to be at increased risk for cancer.”
Smoking tobacco from a hookah is common in many Middle Eastern countries. In the United States, water pipe tobacco usage traditionally had been most popular among people of Middle Eastern ancestry.
However, a 2009 survey found that three in 10 university students had smoked tobacco from a water pipe on at least one occasion, with hookah use being disproportionately popular among white students, males, and fraternity and sorority members.
Toxins Unique to Hookah Smoking
The UCSF study included eight men and five women, all of whom had previous experience smoking cigarettes and using water pipes. Benowitz and Jacob had the volunteers smoke an average of three water pipe sessions or 11 cigarettes per day.