Hookahs Not a Safe Alternative to Cigarettes, Study Shows

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FRIDAY, May 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People who smoke hookahs inhale significant amounts of nicotine and compounds that can cause cancer, heart disease and other health problems, a new study shows.

"Water pipe smoking is generally perceived to be a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, even for children and youths. Our study shows that water pipe use, particularly chronic use, is not risk-free," said study author Gideon St. Helen. He is a postdoctoral fellow in the division of clinical pharmacology and the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

The study included 55 men and women, aged 18 to 48, who were regular hookah smokers. The participants were asked to avoid any type of smoking for one week, and provided a urine sample at the end of that week. They then spent an evening smoking hookahs.

During that evening, the study volunteers spent an average of 74 minutes smoking hookahs and smoked an average of 0.6 bowls of hookah tobacco per person. They provided another urine sample after the hookah smoking session.

Compared to the urine samples collected after a week of not smoking, the urine sample collected after the evening of hookah smoking had: 73 times higher nicotine levels; four times higher levels of cotinine; two times higher levels of NNAL, a breakdown product of a tobacco-specific chemical called NNK, which can cause lung and pancreatic cancers; and 14 percent to 91 percent higher levels of breakdown products of volatile organic compounds such as benzene and acrolein, which are known to cause cancer, heart and lung diseases.

The study was published May 16 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

The large increase in nicotine levels "raises concerns about the potential addictiveness of water pipe smoking and possible effects on the developing brains of children and youths who use water pipes," St. Helen said in a journal news release. "I have seen entire families, including young children, smoking water pipes," he added.

"Our study provides evidence that water pipe smoking leads to significant intake of tobacco-related addictive and harmful substances, and is therefore not without risk, particularly among children and youths," St. Helen concluded.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about hookahs.