Hookah lounges conjure up images of the Arabian Nights, convivial and luxurious relaxation, and "flavorful smoking experiences" that more and more college-age people are eager to try.
State and local health officials have another, much darker vision of what hookah bars are all about. It includes greater risks of cancer than cigarettes, with "higher levels of toxic compounds including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals."
Those were some of the warnings offered up at a recent legislative hearing on a proposal calling for tougher regulation of hookah lounges and bars in Connecticut. The bill would give local police chiefs authority to regulate the hours of hookah lounges, but some health officials say that doesn't go far enough.
"A typical one-hour session of hookah smoking exposes the smoker to the volume of smoke equivalent to smoking over 100 cigarettes," state Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen told lawmakers in her testimony on that bill.
For the uninitiated, hookahs are water pipes that use charcoal to burn flavored tobacco. The smoke passes through a water chamber and is inhaled through a long tube with a mouthpiece that smokers often pass from one to another.
Hookah places are becoming more and more popular with college-age folks, and there are now hookah lounges or bars in Hartford, New Haven and Fairfield. Some have their own Facebook pages and state officials believe they are "frequently opened near college campuses."
Aaron Sarwar, whose family owns Shisk Kabob House of Afghanistan in West Hartford, calls the targeting of hookah lounges "just unfair." Sarwar's family restaurant has operated a hookha lounge for about five years and is now renovating it.
He says hookah lounges and cigar shops (where patrons are allowed to smoke cigars) both have to meet the same sort of strict ventilation requirements, "but nobody's saying anything about cigar shops."
Sarwar says hookah smoking "is a whole cultural thing" for people from the Middle East. "It's a social thing for us," he explains. According to Sarwar, the studies showing hookah smoking to be more dangerous than cigarettes are biased and produced by anti-smoking researchers. "Nobody smokes a hookah that way," he says of the tests used during studies on hookah smoking.
According to the Connecticut Association of Health Directors, a 2011 survey found that 18.5 percent of high school seniors reported doing some hookah in the past year. The survey also found lots of kids also thought hookahs were a safer way to smoke.
The bit about passing the pipe around is one of the biggest worries for health officials.
"Hookah smoking is typically done in groups with a shared mouthpiece which can transmit infectious diseases," Mullen said in her testimony at a recent hearing. "Even if they are replaced with disposable mouthpieces and/or tubes, bacteria that thrive in the warm, moist environment of a water pipe may inhabit the water in the bowl, body or head of the container."
According to Mullen, using a hookah can increase your risk of tuberculosis, herpes, hepatitis and other illnesses.
In her testimony, Karen Spargo asked lawmakers to do more than put on tougher hookah regulations. Spargo, who president of the Connecticut Directors of Public Health, wants to ban them altogether.
"Hookah tobacco is often sweetened and flavored and thus may explain why many people who would not otherwise use tobacco begin to use hookahs," she said.
"We have an opportunity now to prevent the next generation of lung cancer and lung disease victims," Spargo said. "We have an opportunity now to prevent the next generation of nicotine addicts."