When Smoking Is Okay

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In case you didn’t notice, last month L.A. residents had one more freedom taken away. That’s when it became illegal to smoke in outdoor dining areas throughout Los Angeles, including on restaurant patios and around mobile food trucks. Anyone who violates the smoking ban — diners and business owners alike – will face fines up to $500.

As we know, the state already prohibits lighting up inside restaurants and bars. The city is expanding the smoking ban to within 10 feet of outdoor dining areas, including food courts; and within 40 feet of food kiosks, food cars and mobile food trucks. The city council is considering another ordinance that would ban smoking in “all public areas and common areas where people congregate.’’

Councilman Bernard Parks — who is pushing the ordinance — said the idea is not to ban smoking, but to regulate where it can be done. Last November he called in for a comprehensive and citywide ordinance that would ban smoking in “all public areas and common areas where people congregate, including, but not limited to, indoor and outdoor businesses, hotels, parks, apartment common areas, restaurants and bars, and beaches.’’

In a news conference last month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the city is setting “a standard for healthy living.’’ I find that really interesting because just last Monday (April 4), Tony V. appeared in person at Lake Balboa Park to ring in the holiday festivities for Iranian New Year. And just what were the festivities? Well, according to one person interviewed at the festival, “We’re here to eat kabob, dance and smoke hookahs.”

Indeed, a page three story in one major L.A. newspaper shows a photo of several young men gathered around a table puffing on hookahs. The title of the article is “Thousands Gather for Persian New Year.” Of course hookah smoking has always been a very big deal in the Middle East and in the last few years it has gained in popularity with the young, hip crowd in Southern California too. Hookah clubs have sprung up all over the place. There definitely was heavy hookah smoking going on at the park that day.

On a pro-hookah Web site called “Hookah Lounge,” I found the following Q and A with Dr. Thomas Eissenberg, associate professor, department of psychology and Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University:

Q: Is it true that hookah smoke is better than cigarette smoke because it’s filtered through water?

A: Unfortunately, there are no data by which we can compare directly the health effects of smoking tobacco using a waterpipe with those of smoking tobacco cigarettes. The necessary studies have not (yet) been done.

However, we do know that the smoke produced by a waterpipe contains some of the same carcinogens as in cigarette smoke, as well as substantial amounts of carbon monoxide (implicated in cigarette-caused cardiovascular disease.)

The one study that addressed the issue provided no evidence that the water influences the amount of carcinogens, carbon monoxide or heavy metals present in the smoke produced by a waterpipe.

Q: Is there an equal amount of nicotine in hookah and cigarettes? Do you happen to have any of the statistics on how much nicotine and carbon monoxide there is in hookah?

A: Waterpipes are used for periods that can last for 30-45 minutes, while a single cigarette is smoked for about 5 minutes. The average puff on a waterpipe produces about 500 ml of smoke, while the average puff on a cigarette produces about 50 ml of smoke.

A hookah smoker can take about 100 puffs when s/he uses a waterpipe (i.e., in a single 30-45 minute session) while a cigarette smoker takes about 10 puffs.

Waterpipe use episodes can involve some 100 puffs of 500 ml of smoke each, or 50,000 ml of smoke (or 50 liters). A cigarette use episode can involve some 10 puffs of 50 ml each, or 500 ml (0.5 liters).

With all this in mind, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there is more nicotine in waterpipe smoke, and you are right — one study shows that the smoke from a waterpipe, produced as though a human were smoking it, contains about 2.96 mg nicotine. Similar studies with cigarettes show that cigarette smoke contains about 1.74 mg nicotine.

So even though smoking a hookah is, at the very least, just as bad as cigarette smoking, Mayor Villaraigosa evidently doesn’t have a problem with it. My 80 year-old sister-in-law can’t enjoy having a cigarette after dinner outside a restaurant; I can’t have an occasional cigar in public; but if someone wants to suck on hookahs in the park — it’s fine. What I want to know is: what exactly is Mayor Villaraigosa smoking these days?

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