On a recent afternoon stroll through one of San Francisco's chichi boutique- studded shopping districts, I was momentarily frozen in my tracks by a sight which induced a state of acute cognitive dissonance. There in front of me was an outdoor hookah lounge, populated by young, attractive, affluent, and maybe not so healthy urbanites.
My only frame of reference for hookahs, water pipes, or "shisha" dates back to a distant era when they were not associated, at least in Northern California, with tobacco ingestion. I immediately heard the words to that song pass through my head: "One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she's ten feet tall. And if you go chasing rabbits and you know you're going to fall, tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call..."
But in the year 2008, it is tobacco smoking via water pipes which has become a fashionable attraction to those most vulnerable to the pull of whatever is currently deemed hip, cool, chic, or exotic. This was a youthful crowd sitting idyllically in the sunshine, chatting, text-messaging, and displaying their polished smooth skin and hair as they casually sucked on hookah mouthpieces. There is a misconception that using a water pipe to smoke tobacco somehow reduces its harmfulness; young people especially may not want to explore the facts about this.
According to the Director of the California Department of Health Services, Diana Bonta, "The use of hookah pipes is NOT considered a safe alternative to cigarette smoking. Smoking hookah pipes has been reported to cause oral, esophageal, and lung cancer as well as heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and of course, nicotine addiction." In addition, most tobacco hookahs employ charcoal for heating, which produces carbon monoxide, a known toxin.
My little glimpse of hookah heaven on a Sunday afternoon left me shocked, angry, and frustrated. Many people have spent their careers fighting the tobacco industry and attempting to regulate cigarette advertising and sales. Others have worked in medical professions, treating tobacco related illnesses and educating the public about the risks inherent in smoking. All Americans are bearing the huge burden today of the health care costs of tobacco related illnesses. It is painful to watch a new tobacco consumption trend appear on the scene in the guise of an innocent pleasure. Shisha is not chichi. Go ask Alice, I think she'll know.