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Senior Noah Denny* blows “sex on the beach”-flavored tobacco smoke through his lips, slowly, rhythmically. He’s sunk into a red plush chair; upbeat Middle Eastern music pumps in the background. There’s conversation and chaos all around him, but he doesn’t hear. He’s in the middle of a Kansas City area hookah bar, and he’s completely relaxed.
Smoking hookah satisfies him. It’s better than just staying at home and hanging out in his basement. It takes his mind off of the constant stress from school and sports.
Underage teens across the country seem to be following Denny’s lead. In early November, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a study on high school students and tobacco usage. Hookah usage is on the rise. Within a wyear, the number of teenaged hookah smokers increased from 4.1 percent to 5.4 percent.
According to the CDC, “hookahs — sometimes called water pipes — are used to smoke specially-made tobacco that is available in a variety of flavors (e.g., apple, mint, cherry, chocolate).” This tobacco is placed in a bowl, heated by charcoal and breathed in through a mouthpiece that is typically shared between smokers. The legal age for smoking tobacco is 18 for the United States.
According to Denny, this new wave of hookah smokers have come about recently, especially to those in the East community. Denny says that while high school students have been drinking and smoking marijuana for years, he thinks hookah is the next big thing for teenagers.
“I don’t think anyone really [knew what hookah was a couple years ago]…,” Denny said. “This year people just started discovering it and really liking it so a lot of people have gone [to hookah bars].”
Junior Rebecka Tucker* has recently joined the hookah trend as well. She thinks that smoking hookah is an alternative to ‘worse’ drugs like marijuana, and is easier to access than other illegal recreations, particularly alcohol. Since tobacco purchase is legal when you turn 18, some seniors in high school are old enough to purchase those products — including things they can smoke in a hookah — and give it to their younger peers.
“[Tobacco for hookah is] easier to get than maybe alcohol, and it really just is a fun thing to do,” Tucker said. “More and more people talk about it and it just spreads around. And it’s the “new” cool thing to do. Once someone notices something that hasn’t ever been seen, they will want to actually do it and try it more.”
Tucker was introduced to hookah her sophomore year when she saw her older brother doing it. She became so intrigued with it that her brother, who is of age, bought her a hookah of her own for her next birthday present. Now, whenever she needs shisha — the flavored tobacco — for her hookah, she turns to her older brother for help.
To senior Nicole Robinson, the appeal of smoking hookah isn’t the lightheaded rush. For her, more than anything, hookah bars are opportunities for socialization that isn’t just sitting in someone’s house like usual.
“It’s really more of a social thing,” Robinson said. “It’s not really like ‘oh, I wanna get a buzz,’ it’s more like ‘oh, let’s just hang out.’”
Robinson says hookah bars are becoming a more popular social scene as the number of students who go to them increases.
Denny says that while there are certain hookah bars around the KC area that are notorious for letting minors in, the majority of hookah bars are difficult for underaged kids to get into. Most of his friends find one or two bars and stick to them.
According to Denny, to get into one hookah bar teens may just need to know the owner personally, who will make an exception for you and your underaged friends. Vickers says her standby hookah bar doesn’t card at all. A local hookah bar who Robinson and Tucker claim has a reputation for allowing minors in their doors, claims that they always check IDs at the door.
According to School Resource Officer Joel Porter, these hookah bars are lenient on who they allow inside for the sake of making profits. He says that the reality is that underaged students bring in a steady amount of revenue for these businesses. Porter has never discovered a minor at a hookah bar, as there are none specifically in Prairie Village and students tend to go to the ones in Kansas City, Mo. However, he has talked with students who have told him about going inside.
“[It’s easy for minors to get into hookah bars] probably because of the same reason it’s easy to go into a convenient store and buy cigarettes or, in a lot of places, being able to go in and purchase alcohol as a minor,” Porter said. “People who run businesses want profits, and some do that with integrity and some don’t.”
In addition to legal issues, Dr. Abby Loch from Johnson County Pediatrics says that health issues can come as a result of smoking hookah as well. She says the most common misconception hookah smokers seem to have is the idea that hookah is less dangerous or less harmful to the body than other things, particularly cigarettes.
The CDC says hookah tobacco does have nicotine, and is “at least as toxic as cigarette smoke.” Hookah smokers may even take in more smoke than with cigarettes due to the deep inhalation, frequent puffing and greater amount of time spent smoking. In fact, they say that a typical one-hour-long hookah smoking session involves inhaling 100-200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette.
In addition to the dangers from the smoke, Loch says that oral and upper respitory infections can be passed on by sharing a mouthpiece. Also, carbon monoxide from the heated coals is breathed in constantly. And all of these effects, according to Loch, have worse consequences when it is minors who smoke it.
“If you’re starting at a younger age, then you’re obviously going to be exposed to it for a lot longer, and being chronically exposed to things like carbonmonoxide and the chemicals within tobacco [can be harmful],” Loch said. “[When you smoke hookah at a young age], everyone is developing, their lungs are developing. So the longer you’re exposed to it, just like cigarettes, you’re more prone to things later on like oral cancer and lung cancer and bladder cancer and those types of things.”
Even with these health threats and legality issues, the numbers show that teenage hookah usage is growing. As the number of underage cigarette smokers declines — from 15.8 percent to 14 percent in the past year — hookah usage is still on the rise. Teens like Tucker, Robinson and Denny see the social benefits clearer than the health and legal risks, and this generation of students is contributing to that 5.4 percent of minors who are part of the hookah craze.
*names changed to protect identity