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Smoking hookah like kissing someone with the flu?

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Posted: Friday, July 5, 2013 12:00 am

Michael Huckabee is professor and director of the physician assistant program at UNMC. He's worked as a physician assistant for 30 years, primarily in rural Nebraska. He blogs every other week. Click here to read more from Michael Huckabee.

It's not just another craze. The hookah pipe is becoming mainstream among college students and young adults. Some older adults are even trying it out, too.

Simply put, a hookah is a water pipe suitable for smoking flavored tobacco, originating in ancient Persia and India. The tobacco comes in assorted flavors from popular apple and mint to wilder tastes such as cappuccino and “sex on the beach.”

The pipe itself is a tall metal cylinder with a dish for the tobacco on top and a water bowl at the bottom. A hose comes out of the water bowl that serves as a mouthpiece.

The use of hookahs becomes a party event. A group gathers to share the mouthpiece, each person taking several draws from the pipe before passing it to a friend.

Hookah lounges and cigar bars can be found in Omaha and Lincoln. A typical serving of tobacco lasts an hour, averaging 200 puffs (an average cigarette gets 20 puffs).

Proponents enjoy the social gathering. Hookah advocates argue that because the smoke is first filtered through water, it is less harmful than smoking cigarettes or cigars. Unfortunately, science disagrees. Studies show the risks are typically the same as smoking cigarettes as the water does not filter out the toxins in the smoke. A hookah smoker usually takes a deeper pull on the pipe (a “hit”), inhaling higher concentrations of smoke and toxins compared to smoking a cigarette.

And the hookah process brings other health risks. Passing the mouthpiece around a circle can spread infections just the same as coughing on a friend or kissing an infected partner. The secondhand smoke from hookah pipes has a more serious risk because it holds both the tobacco fumes and the fumes from the charcoal or other source used to heat the tobacco.

As with alcohol and any drug use, we should weigh the risks associated with all forms of smoking. There's good research being done that can help us, and we'll likely learn more than by just going with what seems “right” at the moment. Maybe now you can decide – will you try a hookah hit?

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