Despite warnings by medical experts, hookah or water pipe smoking is increasing across the US. The pace of this socializing tool is increasing so rapidly until the American Lung Association refers to it as the “21st Century biggest tobacco challenge.”

It was a picturesque evening on May 3, in Adams Morgan, a community in D.C. known for its popular restaurants and bars. To compete with the fast moving pace of restaurants and bars opening in other gentrifying neighborhoods, establishments came up with another hitch – hookah bars! Young urban professionals and college-age students came in groups to eat, drink, smoke and have a good time.

Hookah is a water pipe that is traditionally smoked in a group. It utilizes a sticky-type of tobacco called shisha, flavored with molasses and fruit. Hookahs normally have two or more hoses.

“It was so competitive here. The hookah bar saved us,” said Zakaria Ibrahim, 57, spokesperson for Bistro 18 on 18th Street, N.W. With its grand opening four years ago, Ibrahim said the bar began to operate after the smoke-free ban of 2007. It immediately applied to DOH for an exemption and was granted a temporary one.

“We are in compliance with the law still waiting for the final determination.”

The District of Columbia passed the Department of Health Functions Clarification Amendment Act or “Smokefree Workplaces Law” in December, 2005. An extension of the law to prohibit smoking tobacco in workplaces and temporarily exempted bar areas of restaurants, taverns, clubs, brew pubs, or nightclubs from the smoking prohibition until January, 2007.

The law also includes a tobacco bar, restaurant, tavern, brew pub, club, or nightclub that generates 10 percent or more of its total annual revenue from the on-site sale of tobacco products, excluding sales from vending machines or an outdoor area of a restaurant, tavern, club, brew pub or nightclub.

A place intending to permit smoking as a tobacco bar is required to apply for an exemption. An exemption lasts for no more than three years and the applicant may be subject to audits to ensure it continues to meet the income from the sale of tobacco products requirement.

According to DOH, currently, 45 establishments have filed applications requesting a “smoking exemption” since legislation was enacted. At this time, only three establishments have been officially exempted for a three-year term.

“We believe that many establishments may continue to operate based on the assertion that their establishment does not sell tobacco byproducts for hookah usage” said Jason R. Brown, chief of the Bureau of Cancer and Chronic Disease, DC Department of Health (DOH).

But these remarks are troubling to some like Angela Bradley, co-founder, Smokefree D.C., the advocacy group behind the passage of the 2007 law banning smoking in bars and restaurants,

“Does the DOH concur with the assertion that the hookah establishments aren’t selling tobacco for hookah usage,” asked Bradley. “If yes, what does the city think is being smoked? What do the establishment owners say is being smoked? And what chemicals are in the smoke? Doesn’t the DOH have an obligation to find out, and protect workers from potential harm? What is the city doing to learn what is being smoked? If no, what is the DOH going to do to ensure the smoke-free workplace law is being enforced?”

Just a few doors down from Bistro 18, a group of young White males was engaged in conversation, puffing on their cigarettes outside of a restaurant. They admitted going to hookah bars and gave an analysis of tobacco smoking.

“It’s not the same. The nicotine in cigarettes has a different effect on the smoker and others around them. This is not something I read but rather something I know,” said John Brosig, 21, as he puffed away on his cigarette. “Hookah smoking is like chillin’ or socializing. Cigarette smoking is a nicotine thing.”

But scientists disagree. “Any form of smoking is dangerous, and our studies on toxic metals in hookah smoke are taking the first steps toward the necessary animal and human studies that will establish a clearer picture of the relative dangers of hookah and cigarette smoking,” said Dr. Joseph Caruso, who led a study that was presented to the 246th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society.

Studies have shown, for instance, that a typical hour-long hookah smoking session involves 200 puffs, while an average cigarette is 20 puffs which estimates that an hour-long hookah session is equivalent to smoking 5-10 packs of cigarettes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health concludes on its website, “While many hookah smokers may think this practice is less harmful than smoking cigarettes, hookah smoking has many of the same health risks as cigarette smoking.”

“DOH works closely with our Federal partners and community stakeholders, including the CDC and ALA, to address the public health concerns associated with smoking,” Brown said. “Ultimately, DOH adheres to the District law related to the ban on smoking tobacco in workplaces, and will continue to work with our Federal partners and community stakeholders to promote healthier environments for District’s citizens.”

Ibrahim looks at it quite differently. “People are here from all over the world.

Hookah smoking is part of our culture. Respect our culture,” said Ibrahim. 

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO