By Prem Calvin Prashad
Hookah, an Arabian water pipe used to smoke tobacco, is a time-honored tradition and social activity spanning the Middle East and South Asia. Even limited use of this water pipe to smoke the tobacco, known as sheesha, produces a pleasant, light-headed sensation.
In the United States, hookah smoking has exploded in popularity near college campuses as well as in select South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant communities. It is particularly popular among teenagers who would ordinarily not be able to acquire conventional tobacco products. Establishments that serve hookah are not subject to the same stringent indoor smoking laws enforced on bars and restaurants.
A hookah pipe consists of a water-filled glass base topped by a chamber that connects to hoses with mouthpieces and a bowl that holds the tobacco. Coal is placed on this bowl, or “head,” which cooks or steams the sheesha and sends smoke into the chamber to be cooled.
Tobacco for these pipes is generally fruit- or mint-flavored, and in some instances a hollowed-out grapefruit or orange can replace the traditional bowl for a cloyingly sweet smoke.
Queens has seen an influx of hookah lounges in the past few years, particularly in Astoria and Richmond Hill. This follows a global trend of the formerly rural tradition being adopted as a social activity by youth in urbanizing areas.
Such is the popularity that even convenience stores in these neighborhoods stock the pipes and tobacco.
Despite a lack of substantial research into the dangers of hookah smoking, public health experts noted that the amount of tobacco smoke consumed within the course of a hookah session can be up to a hundred times that of a cigarette. Due to the mellowing nature of the smoke produced by a hookah, these health dangers are generally not apparent to the average user.
Yet these dangers have not tempered enthusiasm for hookah smoking.
“It’s a fun social activity and it doesn’t affect you like alcohol,” said one Richmond Hill teenager, who declined to be named. “It’s a temporary feeling and it’s not as bad as smokers who have cigarettes every day.”
Indeed, hookah is not as implicitly habit-forming as conventional tobacco products, though the act of smoking hookah can become a persistent ritual or routine in and of itself.
The teenager interviewed was unable to name another social activity available to him and his peers in the neighborhood.
Two years ago, a group of youths in southern Queens, under the auspices of the Richmond Hill-based Indo-Caribbean Alliance’s Youth Leadership Program, created a short video series titled “Hooked on Hookah” aimed at convincing Indo-Caribbean youth to abandon the practice. ICA promotes leadership and guidance for youths in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park.
I spoke with Nadira Beepat, a member of that group and a former youth leader for ICA, about the growth of hookah lounges in Queens, particularly along Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill.
Beepat and her group choose YouTube as a platform to reach out to their peers. Their efforts also included a now-defunct Facebook page.
“We figured that more people look to YouTube and Facebook for information, compared to most sites,” she explained.
Most of Beepat’s peers assumed the exhaust from the hookah was simply vapor, so the research conducted by her group convinced some to stop using it. Their videos warn that a typical one-hour hookah session can be the equivalent of smoking five packs of cigarettes.
This is determined by the amount of smoke drawn in by the lungs as well as the amount of times one inhales from the hookah, which tends to be done at a leisurely pace.
“Teenagers want to fit in, they want to hang out …. This is one of the places they find comfortable hanging out and acting cool,” Beepat noted. “They don’t know anything about it … they think it’s harmless.”
Hookah lounges tend to be fluid, dropping in and out of business. Yet during the course of researching the number of establishments in the neighborhood, Beepat noticed that “if you really wanted to go, you could walk to one.”
Beepat, who remains active in social causes in southern Queens, noted that today’s teens “should find something productive to do. These kids don’t have any guidance, they only have each other.”