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The health risks of tobacco and hookahs

October 18, 2010

The word is out: smoking tobacco through a waterpipe — a narghile or hookah — is as dangerous, or more so than smoking cigarettes. So says the World Health Organization, which issued an advisory in 2005 that made news around the world. It noted that "waterpipe smoking is associated with many of the same risks as cigarette smoking and may in fact involve some unique health risks."

The advisory resulted largely from the pioneering work of researchers at the American University of Beirut (AUB), supported by IDRC. Using a mechanical smoking machine, they demonstrated that one session at the waterpipe is as dangerous as smoking 20 to 30 cigarettes. Smoke from waterpipes “has a tar content that is very high, nicotine, and heavy metals as well,” reports AUB researcher Rima Afifi, summarizing the work of Dr Alan Shihadeh.

Afifi says documenting the narghile’s dangers has allowed for a broader challenge of Lebanon’s pro-tobacco environment. The AUB team is moving forward with research on legislative options, school campaigns, and smoke-free zones.

This is just part of IDRC's global work on tobacco control, which includes helping countries with legislation and enabling farmers to plant alternative crops. Tobacco causes 5 million annual deaths, and 70% of smokers live in developing countries.

Take two ten-year-olds — one living in Lebanon and one living in Canada. Both of them would say they’d never smoke in their life. They think it's a horrible habit and they know it kills people. Both of them have the same attitude. Who’s the most likely person to be smoking at age 14 or 15? It's clearly the child in Lebanon because there’s an environment that supports smoking. Cigarettes cost less than a dollar. Everyone around them is smoking — physicians, teachers, their parents. There’s no tobacco control policy. There are advertisements all over saying if you smoke you are a wonderful person and you get women and beautiful cars. Unless you change that environment, you are not supporting people in their choices.

Professor Rima Afifi on why smoking is a social challenge, not just a personal choice

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