Fact or Myth: Is Hookah Smoke Safer than Cigarette Smoke?

This is a MYTH…

Think smoking hookah is a casual, non-addictive social activity far less health-compromising than smoking a cig? Think again! Hookah smoke contains the same toxins and carcinogens as cigarette smoke…and exposes you to more of them! Think twice before taking a hit of the hookah pipe…your heart and lungs will thank you.

Woman smoking hookah.Hookah Smoke: The Whole Picture

Hookah was popularized centuries ago in Persia and India, as people gathered to share water pipes infused with specialty tobaccos—these days filled with flavors like mint, cherry, chocolate, coconut…the options are almost as varied as Ben and Jerry ice creams! Smoking hookah is an especially popular pasttime for youth. According to CDC stats, 1 in 5 high school senior boys smokes hookah, and 1 in 7 high school senior girls. Hookah smoking is even more popular among college students, 22-40% of whom frequent the hookah cafes.

Unfortunately, smoking hookah carries the same health risks as smoking cigarettes. As a tobacco product, hookah smoke still contains “hooking” nicotine. Health risks are further exacerbated by the charcoal used to heat hookah smoke. Charcoal contains high levels of carbon monoxide, as well as toxic metals and carcinogens proven to cause certain cancers. Smoking a water pipe dramatically increases your risk for developing the following cancers:

  • Lung cancer
  • Cancer of the esophagus
  • Stomach cancer
  • Oral cancer
  • Bladder cancer

Hookah smoking also increases your chances of infertility, heart disease (the toxins are known to clog arteries) and compromised lung function. Not to mention the spread of infections as the hookah pipe is passed from person to person.

Cigarette or Hookah?

The answer is—neither! It might seem logical that passing tobacco through water might mitigate the toxic elements in hookah smoke, but nothing could be further from the truth. Hookah smoke is still highly concentrated in toxic agents, and because tobacco is burned it is two times as toxic as cigarette smoke! Due to the way hookah smoke is inhaled, the smoker ends up absorbing more toxins than they would smoking a cigarette. Let’s think of it in terms of puffs: one cigarette is about 20 puffs (or 500-600 ml of smoke) …one hour of hookah is 200 puffs (90,000 ml of inhaled smoke)!

Is There a Safer Way?

Not really, no. Although there are non-tobacco hookah smokes available, they still aren’t all that safe. For instance, herbal shisha (a popular non-tobacco smoke made of sugarcane) contains high levels of carbon monoxide and carcinogens that can cause cancer and heart disease. As for the new forms of electronic hookah (steam stones, hookah pens, etc.) the health risks are still unknown. The liquid vapor however, contains nicotine and chemicals, so while the risks may be a tad blunted, they are still present and life-threatening.