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Popularity of hookah smoking has advocates fuming


Smoking tobacco through a water pipe has long been a tradition in many Middle Eastern countries. And now, hookah smoking is catching on in the United States especially among young people.

Recently, more than 20 commercial hookah bars have cropped up in San Diego County alone. And that has some tobacco control advocates concerned. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

If you want to smoke a hookah at Sinbad Caf in Pacific Beach, you'd better get there early.
At nine o' clock on a Saturday night the place is jumpin'. Every table is filled with young men and women puffing away.

Melissa Abel has a prime seat right in the front of the caf , where she can watch the action on Garnet Avenue.

Between puffs, the attractive 20-year-old says hookah smoking is fun.

Melissa Abel: "It's a very social thing, so a lot of people can go and do it, you can just go and sit with your friends and just kind of chill and relax, and kind of catch up on things if you haven't seen them for awhile. It's just a nice thing to do with your buddies and kind of talk."

Abel comes here often. And she's tried lots of flavors.

Abel: "Actually I've found a new one. It's fruit roll-up, and it's pretty darn good. It's not like a harsh, ashy taste. It tastes like fruit, when you smoke it. It doesn't hurt, it doesn't feel like you're smoking anything. It's really nice."

At Sinbad's, customers can choose from 40 different flavors of tobacco. And they can customize their hookah, by adding a fruit head like pineapple or watermelon.

In the back of the caf , a worker prepares the hookahs. The young man scoops out a bit of flavored tobacco, and dips the base of the water pipe in ice. That's to cool down the smoke.

Waitress Adina Forgo: "What we do is, he sets it up, I put the coals on it, and then there's a vacuum over here that actually starts it up for us, that kinda gets it goin'. And then we take a couple of puffs just to make sure that it's hitting right before we take it out to our customers."

Co-owner Firas Haddad walks through Sinbad with a smile on his face.

He says business is booming. In fact, Haddad says he's getting ready to franchise Sinbad throughout California.

Haddad predicts he'll have a lot of takers.

Firas Haddad: "You know, the atmosphere, the ambience, the hookah of course, itself, cause it is something unique, you know, it's a little bit of everything I think that makes up the whole Sinbad experience.

But Haddad admits it's the hookah that's the real draw. And he makes no apologies about it, despite some concerns that his cafe promotes smoking.

Haddad says if hookahs were harmful, he wouldn't be offering them. As he sees it, smoking a hookah is completely different from smoking a cigarette.

Haddad: "It's unlike any tobacco that is smoked where tobacco actually burns into ash. By using tobacco through a hookah here, we actually don't burn tobacco, we only heat it to extract the flavor out of it. The tobacco in this case only acts as a sponge. So what it really comes down to is you're smoking sugar."

But tobacco control advocates say Haddad doesn't know what he's talking about.

Dr. Dave Burns: "Inhaling anything that's smoke, that's been burned, carries with it a lot of toxic and cancer-causing substances. So we know that this isn't safe. The question is how unsafe is it?"

Dr. Dave Burns is a pulmonologist and tobacco researcher at UCSD. He's also a member of a World Health Organization committee, that's released a report on the dangers of hookah smoking.

Burns concedes the long-term effects of hookah smoking are unknown. Still, he says some things are

Burns: "There are a number of substances in there that people are getting, including carbon monoxide, including some of the carcinogens, and that will be true even if they're burning pineapple, along with the tobacco. The fact that you add a flavoring agent to the tobacco doesn't remove the toxic effects of burning the tobacco."

But nobody wants to hear about that at Sinbad Caf least of all William Wiser. The Chula Vista resident says he comes here nearly every night to check out the scene, and smoke a hookah or two.

Wiser says he's not concerned about possible adverse health effects.

William Wiser: "If there are any, then it's gonna happen. But as of now, I mean, there's no warning for me right now. When I go to the doctor's I'll see have them check me out."

Wiser has found a new favorite flavor. It's called Menage a Trois. And it goes well with the biggest seller at Sinbad: Wet Dream. Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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