By Peggy Chapman
Northwest Asian Weekly
When you walk through the touristy Pike-Pine corridor in downtown Seattle, it’s hard to miss the smoke shops that pervade the area. On the ground level window display of Smoke Plus, on the busy intersection of Pike and First Ave., there are boxes of cigars, glass pipes of various colors and sizes, and a lineup of grandiose hookah pipes with long coils shoved against each other. A sweet scent permeates the shop’s perimeter that leads down to the basement.
The unique smell comes from a flavor added to the tobacco made for smoking hookah, which has become popular recently in Seattle due to smoking bans.
Hookah is essentially tobacco, but with added flavor. It comes in a variety of flavors—chocolate, mint, caramel, pretty much any flavor you can think of. Hookah is different than traditional tobacco in that it is smoked out of a water pipe and it is often shared and smoked in a social setting. Smoking hookah is a centuries-old practice and most likely began in Persia, India, or the Middle East. There are perceptions of hookah being safer than traditional tobacco because it is smoked through a water pipe, therefore leading to a supposedly better filtration process and a “cleaner” smoking session.
“A lot of our customers believe that there are fewer chemicals…so there is less sensitivity,” said Sameer Iqbal who mans the shop.
He explained that the bubbles the water pipe produces during inhalation makes the smoke easier on the throat than the typical cigarette.
So while it may be less irritating to the throat, is it actually less harmful? Does it actually filter the harmful chemicals?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “The tobacco is no less toxic in a hookah pipe than in a cigarette, and the water in the hookah does not filter out the toxic ingredients in tobacco smoke. Hookah smokers may actually inhale more tobacco smoke than cigarette smokers because of the large volume of smoke they inhale in one smoking session, which can last as long as 60 minutes.”
Iqbal, who moved from New Delhi to Seattle, believes the rise in hookah popularity is because it is fashionable and trendy among the youth. He feels there is a new appreciation for sharing “shisha,” another term for hookah. He said there is also an appreciation for the flavors versus the “buzz.” (The most popular flavor in his shop is Mint. Double Apple is No. 2.)
He said sharing shisha has always been a part of Middle Eastern social ritual and custom—for example it is common to share shisha at weddings. Iqbal feels it has become popular recently among youth because it is an easy way to socialize. He said hookah is most popular in the University District, due to the college students (in downtown, regular tobacco and e-cigarettes are the best sellers).
After the smoking ban in Seattle took effect, hookah lounge openings escalated. In fall of 2015, there were approximately 11 hookah lounges in the greater Seattle area.
Hookah bars offer customers the product at their table. Hookah bars/lounges/cafes are popular due to the socializing aspect of sharing the hookah. Some lounges offer food, music, and dancing, and many of the lounges are open after 2 a.m., after traditional bars close.
Mo Kairbash, a 28-year-old software engineer from Iran, feels the real benefit to smoking hookah is because it relieves stress and provides an opportunity to regroup with friends.
When Kairbash visits a hookah lounge, it is usually after work, typically with at least two other friends (the rule of thumb is one pipe is shared among three friends, he explained—if there is more than three, order another pipe to avoid interruption). “We pass the pipe around and it automatically turns into conversation mode,” he said. “We talk, have drinks, there’s baklava (traditional dessert with pistachio and honey).” He said he couldn’t imagine smoking hookah alone. For approximately $25 an hour, he and his friends enjoy sharing shisha, food, drinks, and conversation.
Kairbash feels his experience with sharing hookah is unrelated to cigarette tobacco smoking. He feels it is less addictive and much more focused on stress relief, discipline, and social interaction. To Kairbash, it seems unfathomable to smoke alone.
So are there risks? What about those iconic images in popular culture of the solitary figure smoking a personal hookah—think Jabba the Hut from Star Wars or the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland?
According to Columbia University’s health resource “Go Ask Alice!”: “Compared to cigarettes, hookah smoke has similar health risks, as well as some unique considerations. Research comparing the two found that hookah smoke contains the same cancer-causing agents found in cigarettes. Hookah smoke, like cigarettes, produces carbon monoxide (a contributor to heart disease), and smoking hookah is similarly addictive.” Go Ask Alice also states that there are “communicable diseases spread through saliva and the sharing of the hookah’s pipe, such as hepatitis, meningitis, and tuberculosis.”
And then along with the rise in hookah lounges, there is the controversy that was attached this past fall.
The hookah lounges became a concern after Donnie Chin, a prominent community leader, figurehead, and first-responder in Seattle’s Asian American community, was shot last summer in the vicinity of King’s Lounge, a popular hookah bar located in the International District.
Chin’s death was not the only concerning incident. During the past two years, there have been two homicides and multiple reports of disturbances and fights around hookah bars. According to the City of Seattle, there have been an excess of 100 incidents reported.
Mayor Ed Murray acknowledged this controversy, initiated a ban on the lounges, and then retracted the ban within a month.
Pete Holmes, Seattle City Attorney, filed a gross misdemeanor charge against King’s Lounge for failure to pay business taxes, but the issue was resolved.
The Seattle police blotter has not reported any recent major incidents around King’s or other hookah lounges in the International District, although there have been calls about noise disturbances, theft, and assault, in the area, but none directly associated with the lounges.
Dr. Laura Blinkhorn, a general practitioner for the Seattle Downtown Public Health Center, said she has not personally encountered any incidents regarding hookah and general health.
When asked about his observations and concerns about hookah and those he sells it to, Iqbal responded that he does not smoke.
“It is not healthy,” he remarked. “But once you are an adult, you are allowed to decide.”