Straight Talk: No matter the flavor, hookah still means tobacco

By: Lauren Forcella
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Dear Straight Talk: My 17-year-old son just left for the hookah bar. He said this is a popular social activity where you sit around outdoors smoking flavored tobacco from a shared water pipe. He says he’s been going to this club for almost a year. What exactly is this hookah trend? Isn’t flavored tobacco now illegal? And don’t you have to be 18? He insists it’s no big deal, but I’m worried he will develop a tobacco addiction and start smoking cigarettes. ~ Mom in Oroville Liva, 20, Oakland: What will soon be illegal are flavored cigarettes, but flavored tobacco (hookah) is totally legal. Yes, you must be 18, but many hookah bars only card the person who “buys” the hookah, not the friends who attend with that person. People smoke hookah because it’s fun and tastes delicious. I’ve smoked a reasonable amount and am not addicted to nicotine in any form. Nicole, 19, Arcata: I went to hookah bars for years when I was in high school. It was the place to be. Yes, you need to be 18 but most clubs don’t card. I do smoke cigarettes now, perhaps because of these bars. Let your son know that innocent as smoking hookah seems, it can lead to serious cigarette addiction. And even though the smoke is filtered, it still isn’t good for you. Peter, 22, Monterey: Smoking hookah is like taking a mouthful of flavored fog. It’s smoother on the lungs than cigarettes, cigars, or pipe tobacco and I’ve never gotten even buzzed from it. It’s a way to relax and chat with friends. Brie, 18, Ashland, OR: It’s a social thing. I’ve smoked hookah quite a lot and have never smoked a cigarette or had a tobacco craving of any sort. Ashley, 21, Auburn: I already smoke cigarettes so I don’t know if hookah is addicting, but it definitely does not get you high. Lennon, 22, Fair Oaks: I’ve smoked hookah occasionally and have never felt addicted to it. There is a slight high you can achieve by taking several hits in a row, but that’s from lack of oxygen. Hookah is popular because the smoke is filtered and cooled (it goes through ice-water like a bong), so you can inhale without feeling an inkling of a cough. However, I’ve stopped smoking it heavily because I wake up feeling hung-over. Mariah, 17, Collinsville, OK: I’ve never heard of a hookah “bar” — but the people I know who smoke from a hookah aren’t smoking tobacco! Betsy, 21, Durham, NH: In New England, owning a hookah pipe is more common than going to a hookah bar. I’ve been to hookah bars a couple of times and judging from the hemp necklaces and dreads, it attracts the same crowd that smokes weed. Julian, 17, Auburn: I’ve never felt a craving for a cigarette even though I’ve smoked hookah a few times. Because hookah is exotic, it seems less harmful — but it’s not. Maureen, 17, Redding: Hookah bars are the new place to be in college towns and urban areas. Some have non-tobacco hookah for those under 18. Dear Oroville: The info from the panel is correct. However, to clarify a couple of points: Most hookah lounges do not offer non-tobacco hookah because smoking dried leaf matter (unless that leaf is tobacco) is a tough sell no matter how much candy and flavorings are pounded in. I can safely bet that your underage son is smoking flavored tobacco. Secondly, despite what most of the panel perceives, smoking hookah is NOT a safe, non-addictive alternative to cigarettes. Hookah has been smoked for centuries in the Middle East and the same maladies reported with cigarettes abound, including nicotine addiction. Hookah is smooth, tasty — and extremely deceptive. It’s still tobacco with all tobacco’s problems. To ask a question or inquire about being a youth panelist, visit or write P.O. Box 963 Fair Oaks, CA 95628.