Educational Resources Lets Talk Science Challenge participants

young man smoking hookah

Man smoking hookah (ASphotowed, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

Is Hookah Smoking Dangerous?

Gokul Rajan


Many people believe that hookah smoking is safer than cigarette smoking. But in fact, hookah smoking can be even more harmful to your health!

What is a hookah?

A hookah is a water pipe that people use for smoking flavoured tobacco. You may have seen one in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The smoke-ring-blowing caterpillar is smoking a hookah. Or you may have seen people in real life smoking a hookah. Many people believe that hookah smoking is safer than cigarette smoking, but this is not true. There is NO safe way to use tobacco. In fact, hookah smoking can be even more harmful than cigarette smoking! 

Hookah-smoking caterpillar
Hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Source: Sir John Tenniel [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons).

There are several misconceptions about hookah smoking and the tobacco used in hookahs. Let’s look at some of these misconceptions.

Did You Know?

Tobacco kills more than 47 000 Canadians every year.

Where do hookahs come from?

Hookah smoking is also called shisha smoking. The origins of hookah smoking can be traced back to India in the 15th century. From there, it travelled to Persia. It has remained a popular activity in the Middle East and Northern Africa ever since. Eventually, it gained popularity all over the world. Many young Canadians are attracted to hookah smoking. This is thanks to the misconception that it is not as harmful as other forms of tobacco smoking, such as cigarettes.

How do hookahs work?

Hookahs are tall, freestanding water pipes. The tobacco is placed in a bowl at the top. It is heated using charcoal. The base of the hookah contains water. The smoker draws the smoke into their mouth through a long slender tube. As they do this, the smoke passes through the water. In this way, the smoke gains moisture, which makes it easier to inhale.

Parts of a hookah
Parts of a hookah (Let’s Talk Science using an image by Smackware [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons).

Did you know?

Hookah tobacco is soaked in molasses and fruit flavours, which gives the smoke a sweeter taste than cigarette smoke. 

Traditionally, the hookah is smoked in a social setting, often in cafes or restaurants. The pipe is passed from one person to another.

Why is hookah smoking dangerous?

Hookah smoking may seem like a lot of harmless fun. But the damage it does to your body can be quite severe. Like cigarette tobacco, the tobacco used in hookahs contains toxins. For example, it contains tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, and heavy metals. Remember the charcoal that heats up the tobacco? It contains heavy metals, too.

Some people assume that the toxins get dissolved in the water. But this not the case. Toxins such as tar, a potential carcinogen, are not soluble in water. Nicotine is water-soluble. But only small amounts dissolve in the hookah pipe water. This means that you’re still inhaling nicotine when you smoke a hookah. 

Why is hookah smoking more dangerous than tobacco?

The tobacco in a water pipe burns at a lower temperature than tobacco in a cigarette. Because of this, a hookah smoker can inhale tobacco more deeply than a cigarette smoker can. This means tobacco smoke from a hookah can more easily penetrate the lungs than cigarette smoke. 
Also, as you’ve just learned, hookah smoking is traditionally a social activity. People smoke hookahs for longer periods of time than they would spend smoking a cigarette. This results in longer exposure to the smoke. It usually takes 5 to 10 minutes to smoke a cigarette. But a hookah smoking session can last a full hour. That’s a big time difference!

Did You Know?

Smoking a hookah for 30-60 minutes is equivalent to smoking a full pack of cigarettes!

There are many health risks to hookah smoking. They can include cancer, respiratory infections, and heart disease. Sound familiar? That’s because they’re the very same health risks that come from smoking cigarettes. 

Hookah smoking may seem fun and harmless. But consider your health. Say no to hookah! 


Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever seen someone use a hookah or tried smoking with one yourself? 
  • Do you think that there is a safe way to consume tobacco? Explain. 
  • Is there anyone in your family who smokes? Have they tried to quit smoking? How was that experience?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Information about tobacco and its negative impacts on health has been available for decades. Why are we still having to educate people about these effects? 
Exploring Concepts
  • How does the tobacco in a cigarette differ from tobacco used in a hookah?
  • Why is hookah smoke easier to inhale? What impacts can result from using flavoured tobaccos?
  • What are the main toxins in tobacco? Which ingredients are known carcinogens? 
  • What are the health risks associated with smoking a hookah? How do these risks differ from smoking cigarettes? 
Media Literacy
  • Is there a hookah cafe near your home? How would you know if there were one nearby?
  • Look for advertising that discourages hookah smoking. Is it easier to find or more challenging to find than pro-hookah advertising? What groups are producing these ads? Do you find this advertising effective or not? Explain. 
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Health related to smoking. Concepts introduced include shisha, tobacco, toxins, carcinogens and soluble. 
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students consolidate understanding by conducting a Key Ideas Round Robin learning strategy. Download ready-to-use Key Ideas Round Robin reproducibles in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats. 
  • This topic lends itself to a class discussion about smoking in general, with the questions above used as potential discussion generators. Teachers could also conduct a Silent Discussion/Graffiti learning strategy with students. Ready-to-use Silent Discussion/Graffiti reproducibles for this article are available in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats. 
    • Potential Questions for Silent Discussion/Graffiti:
      • I have never tried smoking because…
      • Shisha is an important part of my culture.
      • I have tried smoking because…
      • I have tried/would like to try smoking a hookah. Explain. 
      • Advertising of tobacco products is particularly aimed at youth. Explain. 

Learn more

  • Is Hookah Really Safer Than Cigarettes? (2014)
    Seeker (3:18) Informative video comparing the risks of cigarette smoking versus hookah smoking. 
  • The Tobacco Atlas: Canada - Interactive fact sheet containing information about tobacco use, risks, and fatalities in Canada. Note that this resource was also used as a reference. 

Gokul Rajan

Gokul lives in New Delhi, India. He is a Masters Student in the Department of Biosciences & Bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)- Bombay. Apart from Science, he enjoys travelling, reading and music. He is an athlete too, and loves cycling and running