Explainer: What is a hookah? | Science News for Students

Explainer: What is a hookah?

Many teens are turning to water pipes as an alternative to conventional cigarettes
Mar 19, 2014 — 10:30 am EST

Many teens are turning to hookahs as an alternative to cigarettes. But hookah products contain many of the same toxicants that are in cigarette smoke, research shows.


Many teens think they’ve found a safe alternative to cigarettes in hookahs. It is a new trend that’s becoming quite popular with young people. In fact, research shows, hookah smoking is anything but safe.

Hookah is an Arabic word for a type of water pipe. People have used hookahs for 400 years, mainly in the Middle East. They inhale tobacco smoke — often flavored — through a special instrument. It includes a bowl, or basin, that holds water. Drawing air through the mouthpiece heats the tobacco. The flavored smoke then travels through the pipe and the water. In a recent study of 105,000 U.S. college students, hookah use was close to cigarettes in popularity.

But there is a dangerous myth that hookahs are safe, notes Thomas Eissenberg. He’s an expert on tobacco products at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. Many young people think that a hookah’s water filters dangerous particles out of the smoke. In fact, he says, the water only cools the smoke.

So when people inhale hookah smoke, they get all of its dangerous compounds. “Hookah products contain many of the same toxicants that are in cigarette smoke — in fact, in some cases to a much larger degree,” says Eissenberg. This includes carbon monoxide. It is an invisible — and toxic — gas. Hookah smoke also contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are some of the same cancer-causing chemicals present in vehicle exhaust and charcoal smoke.

What’s worse, people tend to inhale far more of these toxic compounds from a hookah than from a traditional cigarette. That’s because a hookah puff is about 10 times larger than a cigarette puff. And a hookah smoking session typically lasts about 45 minutes. That is compared to the five minutes that most smokers spend puffing on a cigarette.

To understand how much filthy smoke someone inhales during a 45 minute hookah session, Eissenberg says to picture a two-liter bottle of cola. Then imagine 25 of those bottles — all full of smoke. That’s what passes into a hookah smoker’s lungs.

“That smoke is laden with carbon monoxide and with other toxicants that we know cause disease, including cancer and pulmonary disease,” says Eissenberg. (Pulmonary refers to the lungs.) And the heavy metals present in hookah smoke can trigger damage to cells of the body, including those in the lungs.

So, Eissenberg concludes: “It is an absolute myth that the smoke from a hookah is less dangerous than a cigarette. And, in fact, given the volumes that you’re inhaling, it’s quite possible that hookah smoking is potentially more dangerous than cigarette smoking.”

Those risks have caught the attention of public health officials. They are now preparing laws to regulate hookahs, along with e-cigarettes. That could lead to new restrictions on advertising and sales that match those already in place for traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes.

Power Words

aerosol    Particles of a solid or liquid that are small enough to remain airborne for minutes to weeks.

addiction  The uncontrolled use of a habit-forming drug.

cancer   Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. It can lead to tumors, pain and death.

carbon monoxide  A toxic gas whose molecules include one carbon atom and one oxygen atom. (The “mono” in “monoxide” is a prefix from Greek that means “one”.)

e-cigarette (short for electronic cigarette)  Battery-powered devices that disperse nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale.

hookah  A water pipe used to cool smoke — usually tobacco smoke — that will be inhaled.

nicotine   A chemical compound present in tobacco. It creates the ‘buzz’ effect associated with smoking. It is one of the main ingredients in many e-cigarettes.

polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs)   A family of combustion byproducts, many of which are quite toxic.        

tobacco   A plant cultivated for its leaves. Dried tobacco leaves are burned in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves are also sometimes chewed. The main constituent of tobacco leaves is nicotine.

toxic  Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms.

toxicant    An agent, usually some chemical, that can produce poisoning or harmful reactions in a living organism.


R.A. Arrazola, et al.  “Tobacco product use among middle and high school students — United States, 2011 and 2012.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Nov. 15, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Fact sheet on hookahs.

Further Reading

J. Raloff. “Many teens try alternatives to cigarettes.” Science News for Students. Nov. 29, 2013.