Show of Lungs: Who Still Thinks Smoking’s Cool?

The Philly kids passing around hookah pipes, apparently

Despite being in my mid-30s, I don’t consider myself to be completely out of touch with youth culture. I can name the American Idol finalists. (Haley should have won, by the way.) I still see live concerts where mosh pits break out. I own an Xbox. But at the risk of sounding like some old-timey crank bitching about what “the kids today” are into, I don’t get the hookah bar craze. Then this week, I read a piece in the New York Times about something I didn’t know—and I’ll bet most of the hipsters sucking on these things don’t know, either: Hookahs can be even more hazardous than smoking cigarettes.

Granted, I’m bringing some of my own prejudices to this subject. Some children of parents who smoke grow up with the habit as a normal part of their lives, perhaps even with a bit of nostalgia over memories of Dad lighting up while watching a Phillies game, or Mom puffing after dinner. I went the opposite direction—it repulsed me, and I seemed to develop some mutant ability to detect the smell of smoke, like having the worst X-Men superpower ever. Even if you don’t share my aversion to cigarettes, one fact that’s beyond debate is the health risk. That’s why I still scratch my head when I see teenagers today lighting up. When my folks started, smoking was still a part of popular culture. Today, though, who thinks that having lungs as black as a coal miner’s is cool?

Of course, the rebel image of smoking is still a big part of the appeal (some of my favorite musicians take drags on stage—which, admittedly, looks sort of bad-ass if you’re Keith Richards or Slash, but not if you’re Eddie Van Halen, who is said to have had a large chunk of his cancerous tongue removed). So along comes the hookah bars, with their exotic pipes and flavored tobaccos and the communal appeal of passing around a hose, if you’re into that sort of thing. But according to the Times, there’s also a whole lot of misinformation regarding their safety. The story quoted a University of Pennsylvania student who summed up what seems to be the conventional wisdom about hookah smoke: It’s less risky since, he said, it’s “filtered through water, so you get fewer solid particles.” Hey, the kid’s a physics major at Penn—we should take his word for it, right? But a World Health Organization study found that water actually filters less than five percent of the nicotine you inhale, and the deep breaths hookah smokers take can equal 100 or more cigarettes. And thanks to carbon monoxide that’s created by the hookah’s charcoal-based heating system, according to a University of Florida study, there’s even a second-hand smoking risk.

Walk around Center City and there’s no shortage of hookah bars, from Rittenhouse Square to South Street, and most of them are filled with 20-somethings. At a now-closed Middle Eastern restaurant across from Dirty Frank’s, hookahs seemed to be the big draw for the kids who hung out there, many of whom barely looked old enough to buy a pack of Marlboros. I’m sure the crowd migrated somewhere else in town to get their tobacco fix. Hookah bars are in the suburbs, too; there used to be one in a strip mall in Voorhees, next to the old Ritz movie theater and an Office Depot. I wonder if Pennsylvania and New Jersey will follow the lead of other states, like California and Connecticut, and support legislation to limit hookah bars—or at least in Philadelphia, bring an end to any exemptions in the indoor smoking ban that create loopholes for hookah bars. And I wonder if college kids would still think these funky pipes were so cool if they knew they could potentially be so addictive or so dangerous.