Hooked On Hookahs?
LOS ANGELES -- It's not tobacco, marijuana or crack cocaine, but this latest teen smoking fad has health officials very concerned.
"It's fun. Something different," says a teen girl identified only as "Jackie."
"It's very romantic... very seductive," claims Mark Ascar, of Hookah Bros.
"The fact is, they are getting into a habit that may ultimately kill them," says cancer specialist Dr. Herman Kattlove, of the American Cancer Society.
What are these people talking about? It's called hookah and it is centuries old, originating in the Mideast. It is now catching on here as an exotic and enticing type of smoke.
"You don't get light-headed. It's just a very relaxing, very aromatic, just a very comfortable feeling," says Ascar of the practice.
It is not a drug and it will not get you high. It is not illegal. So what is actually being smoked? It's a mixture that is 30 percent tobacco and 70 percent fruit and molasses.
"We don't know about the health effects of smoking fruit," says Kattlove.
But experts do know that it is becoming popular in the United States -- particularly with teens.
About five years ago, hookahs were nowhere to be seen on the map. Today, it is one of the fastest growing segments in the smoking industry.
Ascar is the founder of Hookah Bros., a company that distributes pipes to an increasing number of hookah bars all across the country.
"When you are with your friends... it's a lot of fun," explains Jackie.
Part of the appeal with teenagers is the fruity flavors.
Jackie's teen friend, "Neda," runs down the list of just some of the available flavors: "Double apple, honey apple, orange, peach, melon, raspberry, watermelon."
Jackie and Neda are examples of the new hookah smoker. Both are 18, legally old enough to buy tobacco, but neither of them smokes cigarettes.
"It does not smell like smoking -- like secondhand smoke, where you are like, 'oh man, cough, cough'.... Not like that. It smells a lot better," says Neda.
The popularity of hookah use by non-smokers -- especially teenagers -- has raised red flags in the health community.
"I think hookahs are very dangerous," says Kattlove. "Nicotine is an addictive substance. As soon as they begin to feel good about smoking -- they are going to take up cigarettes."
Fans of the hookah stress this smoke is different. You can't carry a hookah around like a pack of cigarettes and it is therefore less likely to become habit forming.
"It's not addicting at all, because I do it on occasion," says Jackie.
"This is something that you are going to be smoking once a week or once a month," says Ascar.
But experts say any exposure to nicotine is dangerous.
"Some teenagers can develop an addiction within a few days of starting smoking," says Kattlove.
Each day, 3,000 California teens begin using some kind of tobacco, and one in three of them will ultimately die from tobacco use.
But people like Ascar insist that the hookah is more about being social than smoking. Still, doctors say you cannot ignore the health risks.