Shisha smoking has been practiced throughout the world ever since the middle ages. In fact, the origin of the Hookah as we know it has its roots in 15 century India. It started when Indian Glass manufacturing began as a result of the exporting of glass to India from Britain through the British East India Company. The glass base was called Shisha- the Persian word for glass. Before long Indians were using glass bottles to smoke a flavourless tobacco called Ajami and this became a very fashionable way to imbibe tobacco. Its fame spread throughout the Ottoman Empire and eventually the world.
Today, people come together in Shisha / Hookah bars and cafes all over the world to relax, socialise and enjoy smoking a range of tobaccos from Hookahs. While there has been an explosion in recent years in the availability of flavoured tobaccos, this is not necessarily a new trend. In fact, shisha smoking has long employed the mixture of fruit or molasses sugar with tobacco for flavour. Because of the nature of the way in which tobacco is imbibed when smoking Shisha there is much confusion around the health risks associated with Shisha.
Is smoking Shisha harmful to your health? Is it any more or less harmful than smoking tobacco in the form of cigars or cigarettes? And does it carry any unique health risks that are not present in cigars or cigarettes? In order to answer these questions, we need to explore…
How shisha smoke works
When you smoke Shisha, the process looks very different to smoking a cigarette. Air heated by charcoal is passed through a bowl packed with tobacco in the form of a paste-like substance. This smoke passes through the water at the bottom of the hookah and the smoker inhales the tobacco via a hose and mouthpiece. This makes for a much more intense smoking experience and many smokers report a more noticeable nicotine buzz when compared to smoking cigarettes.
The health risks of Shisha
Because the Shisha smoke passes through water many believe that the water acts as a filter which makes Shisha smoking less harmful than cigarette smoking. Unfortunately, this is a misconception. As is the assumption that the cooler tobacco from Shisha is less damaging to the lungs.
While Shisha smoking may be a much more convivial and social experience than smoking a cigar or cigarette, but it is no less harmful than cigarette smoking. The charcoal used to heat the tobacco has carcinogenic properties just like cigars and cigarettes and the tobacco still contains addictive nicotine.
Shisha tobacco is still tobacco and as such contains potentially harmful compounds like tar, carbon monoxide and heavy metals like arsenic and lead.
Electric Hookahs: Are they any safer?
In response to demand for safer Hookahs, many manufacturers have introduced variants that forego the use of charcoal and instead heat the tobacco electronically. These e-charcoal heat sources are marketed as safer alternatives to traditional charcoal hookahs but the Centre for Disease Control is undecided on whether or not they’re quantifiably safer. Indeed, studies at the University of Cincinnati demonstrated that compounds present in electronic charcoal are actually more harmful than real charcoal.
Shisha vs cigarettes
While many assume that the cooler water-filtered tobacco from Shisha is safer than the tobacco consumed in a cigarette, the nature of Shisha actually represents greater health risks. Many Shisha smokers find it a more intense smoking experience… Because it is. In fact, an hour long Shisha session can be equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes. People puff Shisha for much longer than they puff cigarettes and this can lead to more nicotine absorption and thus more risk of addiction, not to mention this inhalation of harmful carcinogens.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of passive smoking. When smoking in a Shisha cafe or at home, you are smoking in very close proximity to others and thus they are likely to inhale a lot of smoke even if they are not imbibing at the Hookah itself.
The water and exotic taste may make it feel like a very different smoking experience… But it isn’t necessarily a safer one, and brings with it its own unique health risks.
Know the benefits. Know the risks. Make an informed choice
Part of leading a healthy lifestyle as an adult is making informed choices based on accurate information. Shisha cafes and bars (or even smoking Shisha at home) can be a relaxing way to socialise with friends. It is a more social form of smoking and in that regard it may be considered psychologically healthier. But it’s important to understand the potential health risks associated with smoking Shisha.
Whether or not you choose to smoke Shisha depends on how you feel after knowing the potential social and psychological benefits weighed against the inherent health risks that come with smoking any form of tobacco.