Teen smoking fad stems from tradition

June 3, 2005, midnight | By Clair Briggs | 16 years ago

Blazers experiment with hookahs despite the risks

Senior Andrew Beach opens the door and steps inside what seems to be an average restaurant in College Park, Maryland. A young man and his two sons talk with a waiter and, nearby, a group of college students share food. However, along with the dim lights and calm atmosphere, comes the aroma of fruit and the cloudy smoke from tobacco, which sets this hookah bar apart from a typical restaurant.

Hookah bars are becoming more and more popular. According to an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 Blazers on May 4, 11 percent of Blair students have been to a hookah bar, and these Blazers are also part of a growing national trend: A study done by the American Cancer Society this year reports that 13 percent of teens have smoked some form of pipe tobacco, a three percent increase from last year. For some Blazers, hookah bars have become a way to relax and hang out with friends, regardless of the risks they present.

From the Middle East to the East Coast

Beach skims the menu in front of him, silently debating which hookah flavor to order. "How about pomegranate?" he asks the group of friends around him.

One of the appealing aspects of smoking hookahs is the fact that the smoke is flavored. The practice, which originated in the Middle East, involves burning flavored tobacco, or "shisha," in a water pipe, or hookah, and inhaling the smoke through a long hose. The tobacco is actually 30 percent fruit and molasses and 70 percent tobacco and comes in various flavors, including strawberry, double apple, mango and pomegranate. The tradition began in India, where coconut shells were used as hookahs, and soon spread to Iran and Turkey, where it evolved into the elaborate bongs used today.

Senior Shahla Ashrafi has been familiar with hookahs from a very early age. Her parents are from the border of Iran and Turkey, where smoking the hookahs is part of the culture. "There are hookahs sitting all around our house, but they are mostly for decoration," she says.

According to Ashrafi, most of the teens she knows who smoke hookahs do so solely with friends, and find it odd that her parents have smoked hookahs before. "But it's like a social aspect of life, just how people in England will drink tea," she says.

Different times, different ways

As Beach begins to inhale from his hookah, he explains that this social aspect of smoking hookahs is what draws him and his friends to hookah bars. He began smoking hookahs this fall with his older sister and now estimates that he smokes once every two weeks. "It's relaxing and it's just a nice event that's fun," he says.

Senior Graham Mathews likes hookah bars for the atmosphere, as well as the hookah itself. "Not only is it something to do with your friends, but there's a lot of different tastes and flavors and fun things to do with the smoke," he adds. Mathews also says he likes the "head rush" - a dizzy feeling a smoker can get after inhaling from a hookah for a long amount of time, according to Mathews.

But for junior Marvin Arnold, the hookah scene got old fast. "It was fun the first time, but after awhile you start thinking, 'What's the point?'" he says.

While going to hookah bars may not be something all teens enjoy, many who choose to go do so almost religiously. Mathews, who goes once a week on average, says, "It's cool because it's always the same group of friends." He once went to a hookah bar seven nights in a row during a school holiday and says he "still isn't sick of it."

The smoke behind the curtain

Mathews began smoking at hookah bars while he was 17 and still underage for smoking any form of tobacco, including hookahs. Yet, according to Mathews, "almost anyone" of any age can get into a hookah bar. "It's really easy, it's not like they check you. I've seen kids in there smoking who are definitely not 18 yet," he says.

Thomas Eissenberg, a researcher at the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, attributes this misconception to the fact that hookah smoke appears to be safer than cigarette smoke. "Since it smells good, tastes good, and doesn't burn or tickle the throat, folks who would not otherwise think of smoking a cigarette will try using a waterpipe to smoke tobacco," he explains.

But hookah smoking is not without its dangers. According to a Jun. 1 article in "WebMd Medical News," pipe smoking is associated with an increased risk of throat, mouth and vocal cord, esophagus, pancreas and colorectal cancers. Eissenberg also believes that hookahs can lead to increased use of cigarettes because of the inconvenience of going to a hookah bar to smoke. "Hookahs are, unfortunately, a potential gateway to smoking for young adults," he says.

For many teens, the potential dangers have no bearing on their decision to smoke. "You are smoking tobacco," admits Beach as he blows a smoke ring. "In the long run, it is bad, but I don't plan on making a lifestyle out of it."

Mathews continues to believe that the effects smoking hookahs are nothing to be concerned about. "If it was something worse and addictive like drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, I would say that parents should be concerned about kids going to hookah bars, but it's not really a big deal," he argues. "In other cultures, kids are allowed to do it at any age."

These teens also worry Eissenberg. "This has been harming the health of people in other cultures for centuries, and I'd like to end that harm in those cultures and also prevent it from happening here [in the U.S.]," he says.

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Clair Briggs. Clair Briggs is a junior in the Blair Magnet. She's really excited to be a part of Silver Chips this year! In her free time, Clair likes to spend time with her friends and she likes to eat Chipotle. She loves country music, California, and … More »

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