Investigators: Clearing the air about hookahs - KMSP-TV

Investigators: Clearing the air about hookahs

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Most parents talk to their children about the dangers of smoking, but many will probably be surprised to know that the FOX 9 Investigators have learned a growing trend in tobacco is even luring pre-teens.

Queen of sex, pink lemonade, honeymoon and red night -- those are names that probably conjure some form of suggestion for adults, but more and more kids seem to recognize them as tobacco flavors for hookahs.

In a world of newfound freedoms, the FOX 9 Investigators found a few students smoking a hookah on a picnic table outside the dorms on a warm fall evening. They said that when it came to testing the waters of tobacco, they picked what they consider to be a lesser evil than cigarettes -- especially since the hookah brings a social circle along with it.

For centuries, people across the Middle East and Asia have been smoking tobacco, or shisha, through hookahs, which are essentially a large water pipe. The hookah migrated to the Midwest along with immigrants, and now, they can be found in stores, cafes and lounges across Minnesota.

This is how it works: The tobacco is heated at the top, and the smoke is drawn through the water to be cooled. With multiple hoses, it's often smoked socially. Smokers say it's relaxing, and the smoke is entertaining to behold and interact with. There is no shortage of how-to videos on YouTube that give tips on hookah tricks.

Hookah Kingdom is one of five hookah cafes in Columbia Heights, and young Americans say they flock to it for the social circle it creates -- connected by thumbs and fingers. Sharing a hookah provides a reason to sit side-by-side with a group and spend hours in conversation.

Mohamed Hassan, owner of the Hookah Kingdom, said his café brings in customers who want to socialize around the hookah -- and he says the activity brings together people of all backgrounds. In the end, he says his business is not much different than a coffee shop with lots of chatter.

Like cigarettes, hookah tobacco is illegal for those under 18 -- but a FOX 9 Investigators survey of 182 suburban high school students showed adults aren't the only ones heading to the hookah. In fact, almost a quarter of respondents -- 44 in all, said they had smoked from a hookah before.

One of the students surveyed told FOX 9 News he began smoking hookah at age nine -- others admitted beginning between the ages of 10 and 13, but most sampled the smoke around age 16.

Of those high school students in the survey, 68 percent said they believe smoking a hookah is safer than smoking cigarettes, but doctors at Mayo Clinic say that's simply not true.

"The tobacco is basically the same," said Dr. Richard Hurt, director of the Nicotine Dependence Center. "All tobacco contains over 7,000 chemicals over 16 carcinogens and that is just the tobacco itself, "

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the smoke still contains high levels of toxic compounds even after passing through water -- including carbon monoxide, heavy chemicals and carcinogens.

Even those who only inhale second-hand smoke may feel it after just five minutes because doctors can actually begin to measure changes in the aorta -- the main blood vessel in the heart -- after brief exposure.

There are currently at least twelve hookah bars or lounges in the metro. Those visited by the FOX 9 Investigators were well-ventilated -- and all were checking IDs. Anyone under 18 was not getting inside, but that doesn't stop teens from smoking at home with a group of friends.

Health officials say it's in that scenario where second-hand smoke really comes into play and brings along a second menace: Germs.

As smokers pass the hoses from person to person, a form of communal conversation can turn into a way to spread communicable diseases, from common colds to killers like meningitis and tuberculosis.

In the lounges, the risks can be decreased. Two hookah lounges in the Twin Cities told the FOX 9 Investigators that employees use soap and water to clean the tubing. At Hookah Kingdom, they use disposable tubes and wash out the other components after each group of smokers has completed a hookah session -- but it's a different story for teen smokers who have to trust their peers to keep it clean.

In the end, the teens who spoke with the FOX 9 Investigators say they view hookah as an alternative to drinking or smoking weed; however, they add that many people wrongly assume hookahs are used for smoking marijuana.

Some may wonder how hookah cafes can get around the statewide smoking ban, and the answer is that it's much like cigar stores that allow people to smoke inside on the grounds that customers are sampling their goods; although, that hasn't stopped several Minnesota cities, like Minneapolis, from banning hookah shops outright.

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