October 20, 2009 - Across the Bay Area and nation in recent years, hookah (argileh nargile, hubble-bubble, water pipe, hooka, shisha, goza, meassel, sheesha) lounges have become increasingly popular gathering places for college students too young to drink legally, transplanted Middle Easterners looking to indulge in a familiar pastime and even for veterans of the Iraq war, who learned to enjoy hookahs while overseas. The practice is believed to have originated in India and spread to the Middle East hundreds of years ago.
Hookah lounges in the Bay Area tend to cluster around universities such as Stanford, although there are many in San Francisco - from the Tenderloin to the Haight-Ashbury. High-tech workers and engineers such as Mohammad Aldossary, 25, a Stanford graduate student in petroleum engineering from Saudi Arabia, enjoy them, too.
The lounges are often classified as tobacco shops, allowing them to get around California's 1998 statewide ban on smoking in bars. Most cities prohibit the sale of food in such establishments. The sale of nonalcoholic beverages, however, is typically allowed as long as they do not make up a significant portion of revenues, and alcohol is prohibited, according to officials at the city attorney's offices in Palo Alto, Hayward and San Francisco.
To smoke, individuals and groups of people sit at a tall pipe with hoses containing removable plastic mouthpieces. The pipe's top contains a bowl of tobacco covered in foil and topped with hot charcoal that heats the tobacco when air is sucked through the hoses. The smoke is cooled through the water, resulting in a smooth inhalation of smoke flavored with a fruity essence, such as mango, watermelon or lemon mint. A bowl can last for 45 minutes and costs from $10 to $22, making it a cost-effective form of entertainment.
But like alcohol and tobacco, hookah smoke carries health risks. Proprietors claim that the tobacco, called shisha, is lower in tar and nicotine than mass-market cigarettes, and that the water filters out toxins, but the American Cancer Society's Web site states that "the water does not filter out many of the toxins. In fact, hookah smoke has been shown to contain concentrations of toxins, such as carbon monoxide, nicotine, tar, and heavy metals, that are as high or higher than are seen with cigarette smoke."
It further warns that users risk lung cancer and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, aspergillus (a lung fungus) and helicobacter (which causes stomach ulcers) from sharing pipes or from the fruity tobacco itself.
Reference: Bay Area hooked on hookah, Carolyne Zinko, Chronicle Staff Writer, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/18/2009.
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