Smoke signals

The sweet emanations of guava-infused tobacco tickle your nose as you duck into the dimly lit hut. Israeli music is playing at a volume a notch lower than the general din of young people shooting the breeze after a long, stressful week. Laughter and joking abound. It’s a good time and the night is young.

A hookah rests at the feet of perhaps half a dozen teens or 20-somethings sitting in a circle, each of whom passes the stem and exhales huge clouds of pungent, fruity smoke.

It’s a scene right out of the Middle East. Except it’s taking place in the middle of the East Bay.

For those of you who slept through the 1960s, have never ventured to the Middle East or never read or watched “Alice in Wonderland,” a hookah is a vase-like water pipe with a long, serpentine stem and a glowing mantle of charcoals, which are placed atop wads of tobacco often infused with sugary, fruity essences. (Those of you who didn’t sleep through the ’60s probably used it to smoke something else.)

The pipe is blessed with more names than John Cougar Mellencamp: In Egypt and Saudi Arabia it’s a shisha, boory or goza; in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria it’s a nargile; Africans, Indians and Pakistanis call it a hookah, and cornballs around the world refer to it as a hubble bubble.

Whatever name you call it — and, for the sake of sanity, we’ll just refer to it as a hookah — it’s big. Hookah lounges are popping up across the country (a 2004 article in Smokeshop Magazine reported that roughly 300 new hookah cafés had opened across the nation in the three preceding years alone; a plurality were in California, and most every new café was in a college town).

Young Jews, it appears, are in the forefront of the trend. Many return from Israel trips with a hookah in tow; a water pipe is one of the most typical objects hawked by street vendors in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. And the anecdote at the top of this story? That was “Hookah in the Sukkah,” a popular Hillel Sukkot event at scores of American campuses including Stanford, San Francisco State and U.C. Berkeley.

“I think it’s been one of the most popular events at Hillel because it’s almost taboo, if you will,” said SFSU sophomore Dona Standel.

Added Matt Golub, a member of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and a co-organizer of Stanford’s Sukkot festivities, “I think [the hookah] is almost entirely for the socializing. And ‘hookah’ and ‘sukkah’ rhyme, so that’s a part of it. The hookah is a good mechanism for getting people into a circle and talking to each other.”

That’s undoubtedly true, but it’s also a good mechanism for smoking tobacco. In Israel, according to a 2003 study, 22 percent of children between ages 12 and 18 admitted to researchers that they used a hookah “at least every weekend,” a usage three times the reported rate for cigarettes (and if you think hookah is less risky than smoking cigarettes — well, keep reading.)

And people don’t put down the hookah once they leave school. A water pipe is a great way to wind down a party; the percentage of 20- and 30-somethings who have photos of themselves exhaling hookah smoke on their MySpace pages is currently hovering at “really, really high.”

Brady Gill is a former resident of both San Francisco’s and Berkeley’s Moishe Houses, communal homes in which the young Jews residing within put on community programs for their Jewish peers. Gill noted that the notion of sitting down in front a hookah was a great consolation prize when he folded early on Moishe House poker nights.

“I felt a lot of times when I sat around with Jewish friends and smoked hookah, I was doing something our ancestors did and my Israeli friends did. At Camp Tawonga, where I worked, it was pretty much a tradition that Israelis, who come through on a program as ‘schlichim,’ would bring a hookah with them and share with American Jews,” he recalled.

“I think there’s a real communal aspect of the hookah. Everyone’s using the same device, it’s being passed around and in order to do so effectively, you have to sit in a circle. That reaches back to your kindergarten days. You sat in a circle and passed things around.”

The inherently shared experience makes the hookah remarkably alluring for events like Hillel Sukkot celebrations. Perhaps that’s why students reacted with laughter or even disdain when asked why they didn’t simply crack open a carton of Lucky Strikes in the sukkah and toss around packs of smokes. Clearly, hookah and cigarettes are not viewed as equals.

“I don’t see smoking hookah as like a cigarette or cigar,” said SFSU sophomore Gabrielle Yedid.

“I don’t smoke anything else and I would never smoke a cigarette. I do think it’s different than that. I don’t feel there’s as great of a health risk.”

This, too, was a recurring theme. Bright, articulate college students repeatedly expressed their conviction that while hookah smoking wasn’t good for you — we’ve come a long way since the “More Doctors Smoke Camels” days — its dangers were trifling compared to cigarettes. Even Eugene Grudnikoff, a medical school student living at the Moishe House in Hoboken, N.J., said he was pretty sure there were “less irritants and carcinogens in tobacco that’s used in hookah” than cigarette tobacco.

If true, that would be great. But, as the cigar-chomping composer George Gershwin wrote, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

“Your Excellency, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues.”

That’s how Dr. Hussein A. Gezairy opened his speech at last year’s launch of World No Tobacco Day at the Egyptian headquarters of the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean Region, of which he is the director.

He didn’t tell any jokes.

Considering the Egyptian setting for the speech, it was darkly fitting that Gezairy stated 10 little-known health consequences of hookah smoking (you could call it the “10 hookah plagues of Egypt”). Among the most striking:

• During a typical, hourlong session of hookah-smoking, a participant will inhale 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette (that’s about as much nicotine as three packs of cigarettes, by the way).

• The charcoal applied to burn the tobacco introduces high levels of carbon monoxide, metals and carcinogenic chemicals to the smoke, and these substances are not filtered out by the water.

• Sharing the mouthpiece of a hookah among large groups of people has resulted in documented cases of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis (or, as other researchers pointed out, herpes).

Gezairy’s American counterparts are not unaware of the ascent of the hookah. Dr. Michelle Bloch, a medical officer in the National Institute of Health’s tobacco control research branch in Bethesda, Md., said nationwide usage has surged in the last five or six years after decades of low-level use largely by Middle Eastern immigrants.

“The filtration of the smoke through the water cools it somewhat, so it may well be inhaled deeper into the lungs and that is not a good thing. It is also possible that people who use a water pipe might take up other forms of tobacco. Data from the Middle East suggests that,” she said.

If a young person were to say “‘I only smoke a water pipe once a year, at Sukkot,’ what am I supposed to say? Is that a good thing? No, especially because you might end up with herpes.”

Dr. Brian Primack also loses patience when people downplay the risks of hookah smoking.

“While cigarettes are becoming more and more frowned-upon by young people, [some] don’t even consider [hookah] to be smoking. It’s not as harsh, so they think it’s safer. It tastes better because shisha comes in a lot of different flavors. So when you sit there with a bubble gum-flavored substance in front of you, you don’t necessarily feel it can be harmful,” said Primack, a doctor at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a professor of medicine, who also studies the effect of mass-media messages on adolescent health.

Primack, who, like Bloch, is Jewish, doesn’t buy into the use of hookah as a symbol of Jewish or Israeli pride.

“When you look at Talmud, you know, you think of phrases like ‘choose life.’ I would consider that more important than going to your roots in terms of ‘we should smoke hookah.'”

Researchers like Bloch and Primack stress the need for more analysis of the dangers of hookah smoking — but anyone who thinks new research will somehow ameliorate the many dangers previous studies have uncovered may be delusional. New studies are likely to unearth new dangers or re-enforce the existing ones.

The question is, do young people really care? A number told j. that if their belief that hookah smoking is less dangerous than cigarettes turns out to be unfounded, they would still fire up the hookah.

Warning a young person that by the time they’re middle-aged an action will have life-altering consequences doesn’t always work on an age group that often has little concept of mortality (or, for that matter, middle age). Yammering on and on about the dangers of water pipes while other youthful partiers wheel out a hookah would go over as well as attempting to start a conversation about your fixed-rate mortgage.

In the late 1990s, men and women were ostentatiously chomping down on cigars at such a rate that cigar-producing nations began dumping immature tobacco into their products in an effort to cash in on the craze. Needless to say, the cigar market is not at the uber-trendy level it was 10 years ago. But will the hookah fad follow suit? That’s anybody’s guess.

“People like to do things that have ritual and history. We romanticize behaviors and like to do the exotic and the different,” said Dr. Bruce Lawrence, a Jewish Oakland general practitioner whose 16-year-old stepdaughter recently asked him what he knew about hookahs.

Trendy water pipe smoking “is like trying to be a Buddhist from 1 to 1:05 on Tuesday, or a macrobiotic eater. It’s a way of life that’s not very American. We like to extract bits and pieces and think we get the whole culture.”

Moishe House’s Brady Gill, however, couldn’t extract his own family history from his conscience when he sat down in front of a hookah.

“I’ve quit smoking everything in the past few months. My mom just beat lung cancer. So I can’t really justify it with myself anymore,” he said.

“It’s surprising how easy it is to forget about [the consequences of smoking]. But for me, personally, it’s much harder since my mom got sick. It has a different kind of reality to it. Before, I knew smoking hookah wasn’t great for me. But when it’s not an everyday thing, it’s really easy to justify doing something that’s harmful to your body.”

Cover and cover photo by Cathleen Maclearie

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.