From being a centre-point of village gatherings to gracing plush
joints in metros, the hookah has made a comeback in social space.
But its return has sparked concern among cancer experts who say
Indian youth are getting addicted to the hubble-bubble in the
mistaken belief that it is a healthy alternative to cigarettes.
According to the Global Adults Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2009-10,
India accounts for over seven million hookah users among a total
of 274.9 million tobacco users. While tobacco is the leading cause
of cancer deaths in India, experts say hookah smokers are prone to
lung cancer, oral cancer, heart diseases and respiratory
"Over the last two years, hookahs have penetrated urban space and
gained enormous popularity among youngsters. Without knowing the
harmful effects, youth are addicted to the hookah because of a
fashion quotient associated with it," said Dhirendra N. Sinha,
regional advisor, Surveillance (Tobacco Control) at the World
Health Organisation (WHO), Southeast Asia.
"Making hookah smoking seem fashionable is an innovative approach
of the tobacco industry to make the youth population addicted to
tobacco," Sinha told IANS.
Experts attribute the impressive return of the hookah to hookah
parlours that have been positioned as 'hangout zones of the
elite'. The Arab-lounge like ambience at such bars - dimly lit
corners, reclining couch, soothing music and exotic flavours -
have helped the hookah grip metropolitan residents.
"In cities, hookah parlours have become symbols of socio-economic
prosperity. They are easily available and being at a hookah
parlour looks cool to youngsters and urban rich," P.K. Julka,
professor of clinical oncology at the All India Institute of
Medical Sciences (AIIMS), told IANS.
While Bangalore, Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana have banned hookah
parlours under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products
(Prevention) Act 2003, Delhi is yet to take any action to curb
hookah smoking or mushrooming hookah parlours.
Hookah or waterpipe smoking uses a technique where specially-made
tobacco is heated, and the smoke passes through water to be drawn
through a mouthpiece. Experts say the tobacco in a hookah pipe is
no less toxic, and the water in the hookah does not filter out the
toxic ingredients in the tobacco smoke.
"While we also get cancer patients from rural areas, the young
hookah-related cancer patients coming to us have a myth. They
think hookah is less harmful than cigarettes due to its water
base," informed Julka.
An evening spent at a popular hookah bar in south Delhi's Defence
Colony makes the picture clear. Faint candlelight coupled with
woodworked interiors, the bar is abuzz with the young and hip
waiting for hookah sessions. Each session ranges from an hour to
On a couch tucked away in a corner sits a group passing the
mouthpiece for their favourite flavour 'treasure trail' - an
alcoholic hookah. For an hourly session starting at Rs.250, hookah
or sheesha comes in different flavours mixed with bases of
alcohol, juice or water.
But the hookah smokers seem oblivious to the harm while they sift
through the menu card to try more "thrilling flavours". It is a
preferred way to unwind after work, says 24-year old Asmita Marwah
as she puffed away smoke from her fruity hookah.
"Well, I think it's better than puffing away 20 cigarettes at
work. I always hang out with my colleagues at this hookah parlour
to relax after a long day of work," Marwah, a public relations
executive, told IANS. Her colleagues nod in agreement.
According to WHO, a hookah smoker may inhale as much smoke per
session as a cigarette smoker would inhale from over 100
cigarettes. Sharing the same mouthpiece for smoking can also cause
serious communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis,
the global health body informs.
Occasionally, hookah laced with alcohol or marijuana is also
"Hookah smoke is already full of addictive nicotine and toxic
compounds that affect the lungs and the body. But alcohol with
tobacco is a deadly combination," Julka said.
At hookah joints teeming with youngsters, people exposed to
secondhand hookah smoke are at equal risk.
Experts feel there is more needed than just a ban.
"Banning hookah bars is an incomplete solution as anyone can buy a
hookah, a pipe, flavours and tobacco from a paan shop. What we
need is awareness and of course stricter norms," said Bhawna
Sirohi, head of medical oncology at Artemis hospital, Gurgaon.
(Madhulika Sonkar can be contacted at email@example.com)