BEIRUT: Until recently, smoking nargileh was a pastime typically enjoyed by grandmothers and grandfathers across the Arab world. Over the past 10 years, however, it has become a global phenomenon among young people with so-called “hookah” lounges popping up from San Francisco to Tokyo offering a variety of sweet and fruity flavors.
One of the most popular places to puff nargileh these days is London, where the rate of consumption has risen by 500 percent over the last five years. While nargileh may be considered chic by many, experts warn that many users are under the age of 18. The industry is largely unregulated, and the lack of labeling leaves many consumers unaware of the health risks, they say.
“The smoke-free law of 2007 was no problem, but the water pipe has been a problem because of a lack of monitoring,” said Mohammad Jawad, a clinician and research fellow at Imperial College School of Public Health who gave a presentation Wednesday at the Van Dyke Hall auditorium at the American University of Beirut about the risks of the nargileh as seen in the United Kingdom.
As Lebanon enters the second year of its indoor smoking ban, public health experts are looking at ways that the country can learn from the experiences of countries with older smoking bans and which are also having to contend with the ever-growing popularity of nargileh.
Jawad’s study concluded that consistency in law enforcement and accurate labeling could go a long way in reducing the adverse effects of nargileh smoking.
One of the key findings was the development of a dangerous underground nargileh culture in which cafes often change locations, sometimes block fire exits and generally lack transparency about the contents of the substance, meaning that tobacco-filled nargileh is often labeled as “herbal,” and some are now mixed with alcohol or marijuana and labeled “shisha plus.”
As a result, most nargileh smokers – most of whom took their first puff when they were under 18 – don’t know what they are consuming. The labels featuring pictures of fruits and cartoon drawings show no indication of the health risks associated with regular tobacco nargileh, let alone the enhanced cocktails. “Many nargileh smokers don’t even know they’re using tobacco,” Jawad said.
Rima Nakkash, coordinator of AUB’s tobacco control research group, says that like the U.K., Lebanon’s biggest challenge in enforcing its smoking ban is the nargileh.
“It’s a collective decision,” she said. “They don’t want to respect the law.”