The cigarette’s exotic older sibling

Smoking shisha may be the latest fruity craze, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy

Gathering around a hookah to smoke some shisha is becoming an increasingly common social activity for students in North America
Image by: Don Lougheed
Gathering around a hookah to smoke some shisha is becoming an increasingly common social activity for students in North America

Some students like to loosen up with a beer or two, or a casual cigarette. Some choose to go outside the realm of legal enjoyment while others shun such substances altogether. Today, there’s a growing crowd that likes to kick back and smoke a little something called shisha.

But don’t let the fruity scents fool you: it’s tobacco you’re smoking.

Shisha is tobacco that has been mixed with molasses and flavoured. Fruit-flavoured shisha is most popular, but other flavours include coffee, cola and Earl Grey.

Shisha is smoked out of a water pipe, usually called a hookah. The shisha is placed in a small bowl at the top of the hookah and burned using a small coal on top of aluminum foil or similar sort of material covering the shisha. The bowl containing the shisha has holes in the bottom allowing the smoke to travel down the body and into a water-filled chamber at the base of the hookah. The water cools and adds moisture to the smoke before it’s sucked out through a connecting hose by the person smoking.

If you’re wondering what a hookah looks like, just picture the scene in Alice in Wonderland where the caterpillar is smoking.

The practice of smoking shisha dates back hundreds of years and has long been a cultural staple in the Middle East where hookah teahouses are as ubiquitous as bars or coffee shops in North America.

Hemporium manager Liam Kelly said shisha is a much more recent phenomenon in North America.

“It used to be a Middle-East thing, then it came up here,” he said.

According to Kelly, shisha has become an overnight sensation in Kingston.

“It exploded this year,” he said. “We didn’t even sell shisha last year. There was no point.”

Kelly said it’s almost all students that come in to buy shisha from Hemporium. More specifically, it’s predominantly Queen’s students.

“I think it’s basically word-of-mouth around students,” he said.

For Kelly, it’s no surprise shisha is so popular.

“I think it’s because it’s tobacco and it’s addictive.”

Kelly said “apple” and “double apple” are by far the most popular flavours of shisha.

“I’ve just heard people say it’s the smoothest,” he said.

Mazen Shehada, Sci ’10, is one of many Queen’s students who has been drawn to shisha.

“[The] smoothness is good. I think it’s better than cigarettes as well. … Plus it tastes really good,” he said.

“Double apple is just a classic.”

Originally from Dubai, where smoking shisha is an integral part of the culture, Shehada grew up with frequent hookah gatherings.

“My dad smokes it, my whole family smokes it,” he said.

Now, shisha has filtered into North American culture and Shehada said Kingston is no exception.

“More and more stores are supplying the stuff in Kingston. You can find it,” he said.

“Even small smoke shops have shisha and shisha supplies.”

Shehada said shisha’s social aspect can explain its popularity among students.

“It’s a fun friend-gathering thing to do. You can all sit together, chill and smoke shisha.” Dima Temnikov, Sci ’10, said shisha gives off a different vibe from drinking and using other substances.

“[It’s] more relaxed, more laid-back. It’s something new, something exotic, maybe.”

Fruity, fun and social it may be, but growing research suggests shisha may be even worse for you than smoking cigarettes.

According to a 2005 publication of the Tobacco Product Regulation, a division of the World Health Organization, smoking shisha is “not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking.” The study found that one session of smoking shisha was equal to smoking 100 or more cigarettes.

This is because while cigarette smokers usually spend about five minutes smoking, shisha smokers will take anywhere between 20 to 80 minutes. And although the water filters out some of the nicotine, tar and other chemicals, the sheer volume of smoke being consumed makes up for the small percentage of bad ingredients that are filtered out.

Dr. Lutz Forkert, associate professor in the School of Medicine, said the volume of smoke is what makes shisha harmful.

“The volume of smoke in a bowl is much higher than a cigarette. … Therefore, it must be that the effects are worse,” he said.

This means shisha smokers are still at risk of many ailments, inculding cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, impotency, infertility and complications during pregnancy. The added nicotine also makes shisha just as addictive as cigarettes.

Even commonly sold tobacco-, nicotine-, and tar-free brands of shisha, labeled as “herbal,” pose health risks, the study said. The coals used to burn the shisha contain carbon monoxide, heavy metals and other cancer-causing chemicals even after it has passed through the water.

 Forkert said some of the negative health effects may be less evident because of the demographic of shisha users in North America.

“Culturally speaking, the only people who smoke it are young people,” he said.

Forkert wasn’t sure if these users would avoid the substance if they knew about potential health risks.

“It’s been shown that labels on cigarette packages have been effective. … Whether that deterrent would be effective in a college crowd, I don’t know.”

Both Kelly and Shehada thought shisha was healthier than cigarettes. Temnikov was aware of the adverse health effects of shisha and said he reacted to it badly the first time he tried it.

“[I was] feeling quite sick the first time I smoked it. … The key is to not inhale it,” he said.

Still, Temnikov said shisha falls between good and bad.

“I’m not saying it’s good for you, but you have to find something in between two extremes.”

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