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Medical Research Council Statement on Hookah pipes

As World “No Tobacco Day” (31st May 2009) approaches, the Medical Research Council warns of the hazards of the Hookah Pipe – Hubbly Bubbly or Shisha – smoking in South Africa.

Professor Anthony Mbewu, President of the South African Medical Research Council, today drew attention to the growing practice of hookah pipe smoking in South Africa.

“Of particular concern,” he said, “is the popular belief that hookah pipe smoking is harmless, or less harmful than cigarette smoking. On the contrary, the World Health Organization has advised that there is no evidence that the use of hookah pipes is safe, and that in some respects the available information indicates that it may be even more harmful and hazardous to health than cigarettes,” he said.

He went on to say that,“Over and above the risk of lung cancer, emphysema, cardiovascular disease and nicotine addiction associated with smoking tobacco, the shared use of hookah pipes may also play a role in the transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis, viral hepatitis and oral herpes infection.”

Professor Angela Mathee, Director of the MRC’s Environment & Health Research Unit described how a Johannesburg-based study of urban environment and health trends had pointed to exceptionally high levels of smoking in some areas, and that further investigations had revealed the widespread practice of hookah pipe smoking.

“Of particular concern,” she said, “is the prevailing fallacy that hookah pipe smoking is harmless, or even protective of lung health.” She went on to express concern that mistaken beliefs about the harmless nature of hookah pipe smoking may be playing a role in its growing popularity among young people and children.

“I have personally witnessed a two-year old child smoking a hookah pipe in the presence of his mother. I have also seen children as young as six years of age smoking ’hookah pipes’ that they had constructed themselves from plastic bottles and straws.”

Mathee said that that the increase in the use of hookah pipes was not restricted to South Africa, and that similar public health challenges were being experienced in other countries, such as the United States of America. She went on to say that “while much more research information is needed to help us understand why, where and by how much the use of hookah pipes is increasing locally, we know enough about the hazards of the practice to act now.”

She further cautioned that, “From anecdotal evidence we believe that hookah pipe smoking is not restricted to areas of poverty, and that the South African youth, especially high school and university students across the wealth spectrum, are increasingly taking up this harmful practice, often with the approval of their parents. Hookah pipes are now being sold in spaza shops, as well as sweet and other shops in shopping malls throughout the country”, she added.

Professor Mbewu said that to address the low levels of awareness in South Africa of the hazards of hookah pipe smoking, the MRC had initiated a partnership with the National Council Against Smoking, the National Department of Health, the National Department of Education, the Riverlea Development Trust, the City of Johannesburg and other stakeholders, to use the occasion of World “No Tobacco Day 2009” – 31st May – to conduct various activities aimed at raising awareness in the general public of the hazards of hookah pipe smoking, with particular emphasis on exploding the myths of its safety, relative to cigarettes.

Professor Mbewu called for further research on hookah pipe use in South Africa. He concluded by mentioning that South Africa’s tobacco legislation applied also to hookah pipes, and appealed to the authorities concerned to ensure strict law enforcement of legislation in respect of hookah pipe smoking.


Read more about the dangers of waterpipe smoking…

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