Washington: Smoking tobacco through a hookah, popular mostly among the college crowd, is not a harmless alternative to cigarettes, scientists warn. Smoking tobacco through a hookah is believed by many to be less harmful than smoking cigarettes.

In a new study by University of California, San Francisco, researchers measuring chemicals in the blood and urine concluded that hookah smoke contains a different - but still harmful - mix of toxins.

Peyton Jacob III, a UCSF research chemist, and Neal Benowitz, a UCSF tobacco researcher, both based at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, said hookah use exposes smokers to higher levels of carbon monoxide, especially hazardous to those with heart or respiratory conditions, and to higher levels of benzene, long associated with leukaemia risk.

"People want to know if it is a lesser health risk if they switch from cigarettes to smoking a water pipe on a daily basis," Jacob said.

"We found that water-pipe smoking is not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, nor is it likely to be an effective harm-reduction strategy," Jacob said.

Compared to non-smokers, if an individual is smoking from a hookah daily, he or she is more likely to be at increased risk for cancer, Benowitz said.

The UCSF study included eight men and five women, all of whom had previous experience smoking cigarettes and using water pipes. Benowitz and Jacob had the volunteers smoke an average of three water pipe sessions or 11 cigarettes per day.

Levels of a benzene byproduct doubled in the urine of volunteers after using a hookah in comparison to after smoking cigarettes. Occupational exposure to benzene has been shown to increase the risk of developing leukaemia.

Furthermore, the researchers measured carbon monoxide in the breath over 24 hours and found levels 2.5 higher after water pipe use in comparison to cigarette smoking.

The differences in the slew of toxins that ended up in the bodies of volunteers were due largely to the fact that the smokers were smoking two different materials, according to Benowitz.

"You're basically burning a charcoal briquette on top of the tobacco and most of what you're smoking is a moist fruit preparation, which is mixed with the tobacco. It smells good and it tastes good," Benowitz said.

"In addition to delivering toxic substances from the charcoal and tobacco, the heat causes chemical reactions in the mixture which produce toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Some PAHs are highly carcinogenic and can cause lung cancer," Jacob said.

The study found that intake of nicotine, the addictive component of tobacco, was less with water pipe use, Benowitz said.


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