Recently I've seen billboards declaring that one hour of hookah smoking is the same as smoking five packs of cigarettes. I don't smoke, but I did hit the hookah a few times in college. Should I start picking out my coffin?
Numbers are like Bush-era terror suspects—they'll confess to anything if you torture them long enough. It's not that the figures above are wrong, per se, it's just that precisely what they delineate has been lost in all the excitement.
This much-ballyhooed number refers to the volume of smoke inhaled, not what's in it. Hookah smokers take bigger drags and (usually) more of them, so in an hour they may inhale 100 times the smoke by volume as you do when smoking a cigarette.
That said, that smoke is less concentrated than cigarette smoke—diluting the smoke with moist air is, in fact, the whole point of a water pipe.
A pack of cigarettes has about 20 grams of tobacco; a hookah bowl has roughly the same. Say you share it with two buddies—in an hour, in terms of actual tobacco consumed, you've each smoked the equivalent of seven cigarettes.
Which is still really bad! Don't smoke hookahs, kids—they'll give you the same cancer/emphysema/bad skin as regular cigarettes! Unfortunately, in their eagerness to get this message noticed, some outlets are leading with the most eye-popping stat, rather than the most informative.
What I don't get is why you'd want to hookah in the first place.
Cigarettes I can understand. Smoking was a big part of that exciting period when America was inventing film noir, fast cars, rock 'n' roll and sex. (Also, we won World War II—suck it, Hitler.) How could cigarettes not take on some of that cultural cachet?
But water pipes? Come on. Rebel Without a Cause just wouldn't be the same if James Dean had to trundle into every scene pushing a hookah in a little cart. If that makes me a fossil, so be it.