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Health worries may cloud fun of shisha smoking fad

Popular pastime in Hong Kong bars seems to have got around restrictions on smoking, but it may not the safe habit that some who indulge think it is

Jennifer Ngo 
Mar 25, 2012

The surge in popularity of shisha pipes has exposed loopholes in Hong Kong’s anti-smoking laws, which is fooling people into believing the water pipes are a healthy alternative to cigarettes.

Instead, studies show an hour spent smoking shisha tobacco, which is generally mixed with molasses and fruit-flavoured, could be equal to smoking 100 cigarettes.

“Depending on the type of shisha tobacco, in one session the smoker can inhale the equivalent of 100 to 400 cigarettes,” said James Middleton, director of non-profit organisation Clear the Air, in an e-mail to the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583announcementsnews) .

One study carried out by Britain’s Department of Health showed that carbon monoxide produced in an average shisha session, about 40 minutes, was four to five times higher than from one cigarette. High levels of carbon monoxide intake could cause brain damage and unconsciousness, the study stated.

The government seems to be unaware that the latest smoking trend is passing through its gates unregulated. Shisha tobacco is possibly neither taxed nor tested for tar and nicotine levels, with the Government Laboratory and the Customs and Excise Department failing to come up with evidence to the contrary.

Middleton said that meant shisha sold and smoked in Hong Kong was unregulated and illegal.

The government also had no figures on how many shisha bars there were in the city.

The Health Department, however, confirmed that water pipes fell within the smoking public health ordinance, were not allowed indoors and should bear health warnings. But it was unable to say if the rules were enforced in bars and restaurants where shisha was available.

Nav Lalji, who imports herbal shisha made with tea leaves, said there were at least 40 shisha bars in Hong Kong, with most having sprung up in the past two years. Herbal tobacco does not need to be declared at customs, so it could even be hand-carried into Hong Kong, he added.

The manager of one shisha bar in Lan Kwai Fong said most bars stuck to tobacco shisha. “You don’t get that kick without [tobacco], but the amount is very small,” he said.

“We used to be the only shisha bar here, but in two to three years this has grown to more than 10,” said the man, who did not wish to be named. His bar is often filled to the brim, especially on weekends.

The bar imports shisha tobacco from the United States, but the manager said he knew some other bars imported theirs from the mainland. He said the bar received shipments through the mail, which were not taxed as the amounts of tobacco in shisha tobacco mixtures were small.

Dr Roland Leung Chung-chuen, a specialist in respiratory medicine, said shisha smokers took in a larger volume of smoke than cigarette smokers, which meant exposure to toxins was amplified.

“Water is not a good filtering system as most chemicals are probably not water soluble,” he said.

He also questioned whether herbal shisha was healthier. ” Even if there is no tobacco, it can still be dangerous and detrimental for health.”

Nothing new about puffing habit
Jennifer Ngo 
Mar 25, 2012

It may be a new fad in Hong Kong, but the shisha – also called the hookah, hubble-bubble, narghile or just waterpipe – dates back to 16th-century India when pipes were made out of coconut shells.

Within a century, as tobacco smoking was spreading throughout the world, the shisha had become firmly established throughout the Middle East and the waterpipe completed its evolution into the shape we know now, according to a World Health Organisation report.

Smoking waterpipes has also been a tradition among the indigenous people of Africa and part of Asia. It is only in recent decades, that the shisha became popular in Europe and North America.

Originally, cannabis leaves were mixed with other herbs and spices and the resulting sticky paste was smoked; the name shisha may have come from the use of hashish in these pipes.

The shisha comprises a head, body waterbowl and a hose. Tobacco is placed in the head then covered with lit charcoal. When a smoker inhales through the hose, the tobacco and charcoal are drawn down the long body to the water bowl and then onto the smoker. Despite popular belief, the water has no filtering effect.

A worker prepares shisha at shisha bar Felfela in Lan Kwai Fong. The Health Department says pipes are not allowed indoors.

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