Locals doubt Iowa will see hookah restrictions

BY LUKE VOELZ | JUNE 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Hookah might seem almost alien contraption at first: A bulbous tube crowned with flavored tobacco — called shisha — and heated charcoal, flanked on several sides by colorful snaking hoses through which users inhale water-filtered smoke.

But despite growing national concerns about the novel pastime, some UI students said they believe hookahs are safer and more enjoyable than smoking cigarettes.

States such as Oregon have recently produced bills that would eliminate customer-seating in smoke shops, effectively eliminating a hookah bar’s source of business. There is no current legislation in Iowa to restrict hookah use.

Zana Bajric, an employee of the hookah bar Chicha Shack in Coralville, said she believes hookah bars in Iowa won’t come under legislative fire because of their relative lack of popularity in the state. There are fewer than 10 hookah establishments in the state.

UI senior Lisa Abdul-Masih knew nothing about hookah smoking when she first visited the Chicha Shack in Ames. Though she liked the establishment’s dim lighting and warm atmosphere, the exotic hookahs made her a bit nervous at first.

“I was scared it was weed,” she said. “But my friend said, ‘No, literally, it’s just tobacco.’ Once I knew about it, it was a good experience.”

Abdul-Masih, who bought her own hookah in December, now smokes two or three times a month.

She said she enjoys the flavor and being able to sit back and relax with her roommate while smoking.

“I know it’s a large quantity [of smoke] at one time as a huge health factor, but there’s not nearly as many chemicals as cigarettes,” she said. “That’s why I took more comfort in it.”

Studies suggesting the dangers of smoking hookah are still fairly uncommon compared with the extensive research on cigarettes’ negative health effects, said UI College of Public Health Associate Dean Mary Aquilino. This, she said, makes it hard to determine whether hookah use is more or less healthy than cigarettes.

“There isn’t enough evidence to say that it’s more harmful, but the issue is the more smoke you inhale for a longer period of time, the more likely you’re going to have lung damage from that,” she said.

A 2005 World Health Organization study suggested hookah sessions last twice as long as cigarette smoking, with users inhaling smoke deeper and more often.

Though findings from the study said the water filters out some of the chemicals, shisha still delivers nicotine, the addictive chemical found in cigarettes.

And UI senior Andy Wagner admitted it’s easy to take one too many puffs on the snaking hookah hoses.

“It’s easy to go overboard because the smoke isn’t harsh on your lungs and it tastes good,” he said. “When you smoke a cigarette, you can only inhale so much smoke before you’re hacking up a lung.”

However, he said, the complexity of the hookah process makes smoking sessions easy to moderate.

Iowa City resident Adam Carlson bought a hookah in December, and he now smokes a bowl of shisha per day. The 21-year-old said he hasn’t heard enough about hookah’s health effects to stop his habit.

“As far as I’m aware, a hookah is less dangerous than cigarettes, so I just stick with that,” he said. “At the absolute worst, it’s as bad as cigarettes, and cigarettes are legal, so I just stick with hookah.”

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