Use of Alternative Tobacco Products Raises Questions Across Campus

Caroline Roy-

As cigarette alternatives like vapes, e-cigarettes, and hookah gain popularity among college students, professors and students have begun to address the popular misconceptions and potential health risks surrounding them.

Chair of the Chemistry Department Dr. Cindy Hauser has been studying the chemical makeup of hookah smoke since 2010 and is interested in the different types of particles that people inhale through smoking an alternative cigarette. Hookah gained popularity in Asia long before coming to the U.S., and while Hauser acknowledges that they might not be as prevalent on campus as vapes and e-cigs, hookah bars are becoming more prevalent in metropolitan areas, such as Charlotte.

Prior to conducting research on hookah smoke, Hauser focused on the chemical components of air pollution and their relationship to public health. In 2016, she and Dr. Karen Bernd of the Biology Department received a research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that allowed them to study waterpipe tobacco smoke (WTS) alongside Davidson students.

People who use WTS often believe that because the tobacco is bubbled through water, it is harmless. According to Hauser and Bernd, this is not true at all.

Anytime someone inhales a flavored substance, they inhale particles that could harm their lungs. Shisha, the most popular substance used in waterpipes, consists of tobacco and a gooey substance that gives the smoke its flavor. According to Bernd, the flavored substance alone generates enough particles to damage the lungs.

“The flavorants are food-safe, but eating and breathing are two different things,” Bernd said. “Something that’s okay to eat could be a bad irritant to your lungs.”

Davidson’s official smoking policies do not include specific regulations about e-cigs, vapes, or hookahs, although residence life does prohibit possession, storage, and use of hookahs, as well as smoking indoors.

Campus Police Chief Todd Sigler explained that his staff should never have to enforce any regulations around waterpipe smoking, and that it is up to individual spaces to determine their own policies.

“It’s safe to say that usage will increase,” Sigler said. “A community like Davidson will be respectful about others, but there will probably be some more regulations around [waterpipe smoking].”

Hauser and Bernd, along with several biology and chemistry students, are trying to pinpoint the properties of these particles in order to assess how dangerous they can be. Since waterpipe smoke is a recent phenomenon, there is not much research about its composition.

“There really wasn’t much work,” Hauser said. “All my background knowledge still applied, and I was interested in how the particles form, since the process is different than in cigarettes.”

Mia Hodges ‘19 is an environmental science major and a chemistry minor who has worked in the lab with Hauser. She became interested in the project because it allowed her to bridge the two disciplines, learning about the chemical makeup of waterpipe smoke while also learning about the health impact.

“Waterpipe use in the U.S. is currently increasing rapidly in the college setting. The fact that vapes and hookahs are a more social activity has made them really take off, which just makes the research in Dr. Hauser’s lab even more relevant,” Hodges stated.

The average social cigarette smoker smokes three to four cigarettes at a time, while smoking for a one hour session at a hookah bar is the equivalent of inhaling one pack of cigarettes.

Smoking hookah is not just about the tobacco for many users, since it bears a large cultural significance in the Middle East. However, Arab Studies professor Dr. Rebecca Joubin noted that while hookahs are becoming more and more popular in the West, hookah use in the Middle East may be declining.

“As seen by the depictions of the hookah in Delacroix’s painting ‘Women of Algiers in Their Apartment’ and Disney’s film Aladdin, hookah has captivated the Western imagination of the Orient through time. Along with the sensual harem and belly-dancing, images of the hookah have traditionally been part of the othering process, which renders a stagnant Oriental culture as opposed to the advanced West,” Joubin explained.

“Having lived in the various parts of the Middle East for lengthy periods of time, I would underscore that while the hookah is smoked in certain cafes and social settings, it is not a core representative of Oriental culture as often depicted in the Western narrative,” she added.

On campus, the students working with Hauser and Bernd have noticed the rising popularity of waterpipe smoke at Davidson. Hannah Stadtler ‘18 has worked on the biology half of the lab with Bernd for over a year and is writing her senior biology thesis on the topic.

“E-cigs have become super popular, especially within the last year. I know tons of people with Juuls,” Stadtler said. “I know more people who use e-cigs or waterpipes than those who smoke cigarettes.”

This could be because e-cig and vape companies market more to children and young adults than today’s cigarette companies do. The added flavoring appeals to everyone from middle schoolers to 25 year olds. E-cigs were originally intended to provide a safer alternative for addicted cigarette smokers, but most of these children start out by smoking waterpipe products, rather than using them as a means to an end.

Part of the problem, as Hauser and Bernd point out, is the lack of education and regulations surrounding a relatively new practice.

“There are many negative health implications associated with the practice without a corresponding amount of regulations,” Stadtler said.

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