Water pipes are becoming more and more popular among students, and a small study suggests that they often see the habit as a social activity rather than a health threat.
In interviews with British and Canadian students, researchers found that most saw water pipe smoking as a cheaper, and more exotic, alternative to a standard night in the pub.
They'd put little thought, however, into the potential health risks of the habit, Dr Paul Aveyard and Jeremy Roskin of the University of Birmingham in the UK report in the journal BMC Public Health.
Water pipes, or hookahs, have long been used for smoking tobacco in the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia, and "hookah lounges" are increasingly popping up in the US and other Western countries. The pipes consist of a long tube attached to a glass or plastic container that holds water in its base.
Pipe smoke has the same toxins as cigarette smoke
The tobacco, which is flavoured with fruits and sugar syrup, is burnt using charcoal. Because the smoke passes through the water before the smoker inhales it, water pipes are often seen as a way to filter out the harmful substances in tobacco smoke.
However, water pipe smoke contains the same toxins as cigarette smoke does. And past studies have shown that hookah smoking can increase heart rate and blood pressure, as well as impair lung function in the short term. But the new findings, based on interviews with 12 young adults who patronised hookah cafes, suggest that water pipe users tend to assume the habit is safe.
Most, Aveyard and Roskin found, based their assumptions on "trivial" observations, like the mildness of the smoke and the fruit flavour. "In the absence of pubic health information," the researchers write, "students have fallen back on superficial experiences to form views that water pipe smoking is less harmful than other forms of smoking, and it is currently much more acceptable in student society than other forms of smoking."
It's not clear, Aveyard said, whether college students tend to keep up the water pipe habit or if it's usually a passing phase; nor is much known about the long-term effects of water pipe smoking. There is "weak evidence" that it raises the risks of certain cancers and heart disease, Aveyard pointed out, but those studies have been done in countries where long-time water pipe users are often also cigarette smokers.
Still, while there are questions about "how bad" water pipe smoking is, Aveyard noted, it also can't be good. "If you want to avoid risks -- risks of addiction and risks of harm to health - don't do it." – (Reuters Health, February 2009)
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