Shisha smoking on the ascendancy: Busting the zero per cent tar myth!

BY: James Mawuli Gawu

Health experts around the world are getting jittery over the massive proliferation of ‘shisha’ or hookah smoking.

Arguably originating from India and made a national culture by Turkey, shisha smoking was first almost exclusive to Middle Eastern countries. However, it appears that as the battle against cigarettes started taking some roots, the promoters of tobacco use and abuse soon found an ingenious way of spreading it through the tentacles of a supposedly safer alternative, shisha.
As it stands, shisha lounges and bars have sprung up all over the world, with a heavy presence in Ghana.
Hardly can anyone pay a visit to a beach in Ghana without having children walking up to them to offer them a session of shisha for a fee.

Shisha smoking is done by burning tobacco and passing it through a flavoured water medium and inhaling it through a long pipe.

The biggest problem with shisha smoking is that it is becoming increasingly common among young people and students, with many of them believing genuinely that somehow, shisha smoking is nothing but inhaling flavours. How wrong can that be!

 A shisha or hookah pipe

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a landmark study on shisha smoking, found that an hour-long shisha-smoking session could be equal to smoking up to 200 sticks of cigarettes! Smokers of shisha are exposed to the same and more of the risks that cigarette smokers face because they comparatively take in far more than many cigarette addicts.

The nicotine in cigarettes are very much present in shisha and the health complications of cigarette smoking such as cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, susceptibility to tuberculosis, periodontal diseases and other respiratory viruses, among others are just as prevalent in shisha smoking, or if you like magnified by how many more cigarette sticks shisha represents!

It is worth noting that because of the nature of shisha smoking which involves taking deeper inhalations, many more puffs and a longer period of smoking, the toxicity could be very damning.

And like cigarettes, second-hand smokers, that is people in the environment where the smoking is being done, may be at a high risk of health hazards from the inhalation. Since hookah is cooked using charcoal, it traps smoke that is high in poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide and metals and carcinogenic chemicals (chemicals that cause cancer).

Shisha is typically smoked in groups, with many people sharing the same water pipe. This poses a risk of attracting so many cross infections and the spread of communicable diseases because of many different people putting the same tube in their mouths. It must be understood that if for anything at all, the molasses of sugar and various fruit flavours that are added to shisha only makes the smoking session more enjoyable and more relaxing; ensuring people smoke even more! Shisha is not any less addictive than cigarettes. It starts out as fun smoking, but eventually you find out you need more and more and more hours of smoking shisha to feel alright, and eventually you can’t do without it; that’s when tobacco typically owns your life.

Ban on smoking

The Public Health Act 851 of 2012 Section 6 bans smoking in public places in Ghana. This is a step in the right direction, although I must add that it appears the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) is facing challenges with implementation so far. This law, if implemented, will insulate non-smokers in public places from the unfortunate hazard that the lifestyle of smokers of shisha, cigarettes and marijuana has on them. I have seen at first-hand the plight of Ghanaian menial workers who have no option than to stand there while the expatriate bosses smoke in their faces; if you dare talk, you may lose your job, with no clear structures in place to protect and safeguard your rights. As to whether shisha lounges should be located in the middle of a busy public place is another discussion our public health officials have to lead us in. The issue of bars who in apparent compliance with the law decide to have ‘smoking areas’ that are open and, therefore, not protecting others in the environment is another thing to look at.

Gone are the days when the only warning on the harmful effects of smoking can be found written in tiny print at the bottom of a cigarette box where nobody cares to read. Today, we have been able to boldly write that “smokers are liable to die young” and “smoking causes cancer”. The law on tobacco further provides for public warning of risks and the FDA must deal with deceptive shisha labels such as “contains omg of tar”.

Remember, the water medium does not “purify” the tobacco for safe consumption. There is no such thing as safe smoking, smoking remains very harmful to your health and shisha maximises the risk of cigarettes alarmingly. I will tell you to quit smoking if you can. If you cannot, do it in moderation; whatever you do, don’t add shisha. Experts say some people just need one stick of cigarette to be hooked for life. Don’t take that first puff if you haven’t already.
The writer is Founder and President of Health Support Foundation.
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