August 4th, 2008
10:19 AM ET

The smoky truth on hookahs

By Sabriya Rice
Medical Associate Producer

Over the weekend, I went to a Greek bistro with friends and immediately noticed the lovely, fruity smell filling the room. That's when I saw an oddly shaped, smoky gadget passing from person to person. The hookah. I'm not a smoker, and really didn't think twice about it until the hookah passed by my table and several people adamantly insisted I have a puff.  When I mentioned I am training for a half-marathon and, for the sake of my lungs, I would have to decline, I was told "Relax!"  Followed unanimously by, "It's healthy and it doesn't do damage like smoking cigarettes!" Since the aroma didn't jar in me the same "ick" reaction cigarette smoke often does, I was tempted to believe them. I declined but the journalist in me naturally wanted more information.

The hookah has been used for centuries, particularly across regions of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as a means of smoking tobacco. It is essentially a water pipe, and many believe the water helps filter out the toxins from the tobacco.  Some historians believe the myth of the healthy hookah started more than 500 years ago, when an Indian physician offered the idea, essentially, as a means of boosting sales for his new device. Alas, despite its alluring, fruity aroma, the truth is, smoking the hookah is no safer than smoking cigarettes. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, hookah use carries many of the same risks as cigarette smoking including: exposure to high levels of toxic compounds, increased risk of oral, esophageal and lung cancers, reduced lung function and decreased fertility.  In fact the World Health Organization estimates the typical one-hour session of hookah smoking exposes a person to almost 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette. And sharing the hookah puts smokers at greater risk for transmission of diseases including tuberculosis and viruses like herpes and hepatitis. And yes, secondhand smoke from hookahs poses an equally serious risk to non-smokers like me.

I guess the moral of the story is, don't believe everything you hear. If you're going to smoke, no matter what the fashion, it's best to be aware of the consequences. As for me, if I'm going to choose my poison, as they say, I suppose I'll just stick to my chocolate addiction and to my own personal myth that eating tons of chocolate is actually good for me. The good thing though, is that my lungs will be healthy enough to actually run my half-marathon, and, I hope, curtail some of the negative effects of my vice.

Has this ever happened to you? Are there any practices people tell you are healthy, but you're not entirely convinced?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.