City is Fuming Over Hookah Fad Among Youths

Arturo Rodríguez, from the Dominican Republic, admits to being a frequent hookah user. (Photo via El Diario)

Dominican-born Arturo Rodríguez fell to the allure of hookah when he was 15. The eye-catching Persian pipe, used to smoke flavored spices, has become a fad in New York, particularly among teenagers. Even though the high school senior from Washington Heights is still underage, he admits that there are a number of places in his neighborhood where they will not sell alcohol to him but where he is offered unrestrained access to hookahs – refill charcoal included – at a good price, which he says make his afternoons chatting with his friends more fun.

However, this bliss is 180 days away from ending, thanks to a legislative package designed to impose limits on hookah sales approved by the City Council and recently signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Among other provisions, the laws forbid offering hookah without a license in unauthorized places – such as restaurants, bars and bodegas – and raise the legal age for consumption from 18 to 21, which will force many youths to put it down.

“To me, ‘hookita’ is something really ‘heavy’ but not harmful. You have a good time with your friends and family smoking a little bit when you go out, and, since it comes in many cool flavors and aromas, it’s healthier than cigarettes,” said the 17-year-old, who insists that his hobby has not caused him to develop tobacco addiction and that the smoke he inhales – at least three times per week – is so harmless that even his parents allow him to do it and have shared the pipe with him on occasion.

“They know that hookah is not bad and that it relaxes you. That’s why they gave me one as a gift, which I use at home. That is my PlayStation. It makes me chill,” added the teenager, who ignores the serious health hazard that the indiscriminate use of the fashionable pipe can cause. Since 2008, hookah consumption has tripled among Hispanic youths, which led the council to limit the public’s access to it.

According to a report from the Department of Health, 16.4 percent of all high school students have tried the hookah pipe and 11.4 percent of all youths between 18 and 20 years of age smoke it, compared to only 1.9 percent of adults over 21. The figures alarmed legislators and led them to get its commercial distribution under control.

“People greatly underestimate the dangers of smoking hookah, when in fact it poses many health risks including cancer, reduction of pulmonary function and heart disease, and it is grabbing hold of our youths,” said Council member Ydanis Rodríguez, promoter of the law to impose limits on the product. “The painful truth many people ignore is that 45 minutes of hookah is comparable to smoking 120 cigarettes.”

The political leader explained that bills 1075-A and 1076-A raise the legal age to smoke hookah to 21 and will require vendors to post signs informing the public about the risks of smoking hookah and “shisha” – the concentrate burned on the hookah – and herbal cigarettes, which do not contain tobacco.

“Many youths start using hookah as a hobby, not realizing that they are walking directly into the path of addiction. That is why parents need to continue being vigilant about every tobacco product; particularly Latino parents, as we are in neighborhoods where the use of alcohol, cigarettes and hookah is promoted more broadly than in other areas,” said Rodríguez.

Arturo Rodriguez does not think that hookah smoking is as bad as they say it is. (Photo via El Diario)

Similarly, Introduction 139-C, sponsored by Council member Vincent Gentile – who emphasizes that hookah use cannot be seen as a game or a harmless issue – adds these pipes to the Smoke Free Air Act.

The use of hookahs has gained popularity in the city particularly “among our youth because of the lack of regulation and an outdated Smoke Free Air Act,” said Gentile. He continued, “No longer will minors be allowed to smoke, and no longer will communicable diseases be spread (…).” He added that the law “grandfathers in hookah lounges who make 50 percent from the sale of non-tobacco smoking products and places new code and permit regulations that will make our city healthier and safer. Any way you cut it hookah smoke is no joke.”

Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett believes that the new regulations, which will take effect in April, will save many teenagers from falling prey to addiction. (…)

“With or without tobacco, hookah smoke releases toxic substances that have been linked to cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, including heart attacks and diminished pulmonary function, and may lead to premature death,” said the government official (…). “These emissions may also cause harm to people exposed to secondhand smoke, such as employees and customers at places where hookahs are offered.”

Rosita Romero, executive director of the Dominican Women’s Development Center (“Centro de Desarrollo de la Mujer Dominicana”), pointed out that last year, her organization conducted a survey through the Uptown Voices Summer program that revealed an alarming fact.

“We found that many young people smoke hookah for an average of 4.5 hours per day. Unfortunately, many of them do so in their own homes and with their family and relatives present, which means that we have to educate both our youths and adults about the health hazards of smoking hookah and of secondhand smoke, as well as other herb-based cigarettes,” said the activist.

Deidre Sully, director of NYC Smoke-Free at Public Health Solutions, said that because people have the wrong perception that hookahs are less harmful than cigarettes, a very dangerous door is being opened.

“The use and exposure to hookah dangerously normalize tobacco consumption among adolescents and young adults, and may discourage those trying to quit smoking,” warned Sully.

“Smoking hookah has an exotic charm that is very attractive for young people, particularly teens. However, the fact that doing it regularly fosters a smoking habit cannot be dismissed, and, particularly among adolescents, it has the potential to lead to substance abuse, which is even more problematic,” said Charles Corliss, executive director of Inwood Community Services (…).

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