By Romanus Okoye
For Sandra, 26, an undergraduate of a tertiary institution in Lagos, smoking shisha is the perfect way to unwind in the evening.
“After a long day, I usually go to a shisha joint,” she told Daily Sun as she inhaled a mouthful of the substance, exhaling smoke that swirled in the air, creating a temporary cloud.
“It relaxes me the same way that some people will enjoy a bottle of beer or need a cigarette to keep going while they’re working. I like to enjoy my shisha. If I don’t do it, it feels like I’m missing something.”
What is shisha?
Shisha is a glass-bottomed water pipe in which fruit-flavoured tobacco is covered with foil and roasted with charcoal. It is also known as hookah, narghiles, arghilehs or hubble-bubbles. The fruit or molasses sugar used for sweetening the tobacco gives the smoke a more aromatic scent than normal cigarette smoke.
“That makes it an enjoyable and unforgettable experience,” Samson Ekpo, a shisha smoker, noted.
At a drinking joint in Okokomaiko, Lagos, where shisha was on offer, Johnson, the young man in charge, told Daily Sun that the popular flavourings for shisha include apple, plum, coconut, mango, mint, strawberry and cola.
“Either wood or charcoal is burnt in the shisha pipe to heat the tobacco and create the smoke, because the fruit syrup or sugar makes the tobacco damp,” he explained. Usually, the tobacco pipe with a long flexible tube is connected to a container where the smoke is cooled by passing it through water.
A new fad
At parties and drinking joints, shisha pipes are conspicuously displayed, making it smoking a fad on the rise. The desire for the potpourri of chemicals cuts across ages and social strata. Even popular celebrities are not left out.
Emmanuel Adebayor, the Togolese soccer star, proudly displayed his picture where he was savouring the aroma on his Instagram page. Sometime ago, it was alleged that the wife of a former Super Eagles player proudly shared a photo of herself inhaling and exhaling mouthfuls of shisha at a club. A Nollywood star, after divorcing her husband, allegedly shared a picture of herself puffing shisha in Dubai. One popular controversial Nigerian singer also shared her picture having a ball puffing shisha in a lounge.
Why we smoke shisha
Reasons for puffing shisha vary from one user to the other. For Aisha, a young lady in her early thirties, it is a sociable fad. “I tried shisha after my friends said that it’s relaxing. But I didn’t get the same effect. I’m just interested because it seems it’s a social thing,” she said.
“It’s definitely a social thing for me, being a non-drinker,” Rocky, an Indian, told the reporter, “It’s a great way to chill out with friends or family without alcohol being consumed. Plus, the atmosphere is awesome, very calm, it also tends to raise interesting cultural discussions. Also, it tastes good.”
Another Indian respondent said online that shisha was actually invented in India. “So it should make you feel Indian. I don’t know why it’s associated with Middle Eastern culture when, in fact, more Indians smoke it,” he noted.
At Regional Hotel in Isashi, Lagos, another spot where shisha is sold, the bottles were on display at one end of the wide-open bar, steaming and beckoning on patrons. Blessing, a 25-year-old man, told the reporter, “Shisha is good for elderly people. It works well for the heart and waist. It is not as harmful as cigarettes.”
However, a medical doctor, Dr. Khalid Anis, disagreed, enumerating the implications of smoking shisha.
His words: “There is a misconception that shisha is not as bad for you as cigarettes, because the tobacco is flavoured and passes through water first. But the carcinogens and nicotine are still there. So a regular shisha smoker can expect to be at the risk of the similar health problems that cigarette smokers face, whether that’s respiratory, heart disease or cancer. As with any other tobacco product, I expect regular shisha smokers will find it addictive to the point that they may need it every day.”
Also, a recent World Health Organisation research disclosed that the volume of smoke inhaled in an hour-long shisha session was estimated to be the equivalent of smoking between 100 and 200 cigarettes. The findings further showed that, on the average, a smoker could inhale half a litre of smoke per cigarette, while a shisha smoker could take in anything from a sixth of a litre to a litre of smoke per inhalation.
In Europe, health campaigners have warned of the dangers of smoking shisha. Doctors stressed that it was a misconception that shishas were not as harmful as cigarettes. Also the British Heart Foundation acknowledged that an hour-long shisha session could be the equivalent of smoking more than 100 cigarettes.
“Shisha tobacco contains cigarette tobacco, so, like cigarettes, it contains nicotine, tar, carbon-monoxide and heavy metals such as arsenic and lead. As a result, Shisha smokers are at the risk of the same kinds of diseases as cigarette smokers, such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease and problems during pregnancy,” the foundation said.
Another online report stated that shisha smoking was as damaging as smoking cigarettes because it contains nicotine and caustic compounds such as tar, carbon-monoxide, cobalt and lead, and a host of cancer-causing chemicals in amounts equal to or greater than that of cigarettes. The effect, according to the report, is that “carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in red blood cells, making it harder for the body to deliver oxygen to vital organs, which could lead to organ damage.”
The report further stated that shisha could be addictive: “It produces similar increased blood nicotine levels and heart rate as cigarettes. The inhaled substances trigger chemical reactions in nerve endings. This releases dopamine, which is associated with the feeling of pleasure. This seems to play an important role in nicotine addiction. A shisha smoker is still smoking tobacco and the nicotine in it causes dependence after using it for several times.
“Shisha can spread infectious diseases like tuberculosis, herpes, and hepatitis. Viral infections can be transmitted through the sharing of the same mouthpiece, a common custom in many cultures.”
However, a niche tobacco expert, Dr. Kamal Chaouachi, insists that most of the reports, including that of the World Health Organisation, are “alarmist”, pointing out that there has not yet been enough research into the long-term effects of shisha smoking.
Chaouachi, who teaches at Paris IX University and has researched shisha for 15 years, said that comparing shisha with cigarettes amounted to comparing oranges with apples.
According to Chaouachi, studies led by independent researchers at the Royal University of Saudi Arabia have shown that shisha smoke is 30 times less concentrated in chemicals than cigarette smoke, contradicting the WHO’s warnings.
“It is ludicrous and anti-scientific to claim that hookah or shisha smoke is 200 times more toxic than cigarette smoke,” he said. “While about 5,000 chemicals have been identified so far in cigarette smoke, chemists and pharmacologists from Saudi Arabia only found 142 chemicals in shisha smoke. Also, a medical team in Pakistan found that shisha smoke could be much less carcinogenic and radioactive than cigarette smoke.”
These conflicting opinions about the health implications of shisha have left the choice of continuing or quitting in the hands of users.
One of such smokers, Paul Obinna, said he was considering quitting the habit, though he had been hooked on it for a while.
He said: “If you watch the way people smoke shisha, they take deliberate, deep breaths before exhaling, so there is a lot of smoke being inhaled. No doubt, inhaling tobacco smoke, whether it is from shisha or cigarettes, is never going to be good. I know that, but, at the end of the day, it is just something I enjoy.”