Ordering from a hookah lounge almost feels like being in a candy shop, except all the lollipops are loaded with nicotine.
A menu at Koal Hookah Lounge in California boasts a long list of fruity flavored tobaccos with quirky names like “fruit loops” and “purple haze” for the blended options.
The light, sweet-smelling scent of apple wafts through the air – nothing like the acrid stench of cigarette smoke, hookah smokers say, but doctors still warn of the potential health risks.
While seemingly contradictory, the hookah lounge has become a smoking spot for non-smokers. Lounges are the sometimes mellow, sometimes bustling alternative to bars and dance clubs. It’s an all-around “chill” place for college students to chat and study during the week, as well as a place to party and “pre-game” for the bars come Friday night.
Hookah, a long-stemmed water pipe that vaporizes flavored tobacco, has been worming its way into popular culture over the past decade. No longer the exotic smoking device of Persian kings, or the vice of a certain caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland,” hookah has become a normal pastime for many college students.
Pittsburgh’s reputation as a college town has attracted a host of hookah lounges, but perhaps the only one in Washington and Greene counties just opened near California University of Pennsylvania.
Koal Hookah Lounge, on Third Street, opened at the end of January after the short-lived Sunset Hookah closed its doors at the same address. Faisal Ali and Azeem Chatta, longtime friends, opened the first Koal Hookah Lounge in Slippery Rock in 2010 and, after witnessing its success, followed suit in California.
Chatta, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, said he and Ali, a graduate of Pennsylvania State University who now lives in Florida, “were never really big hookah connoisseurs.” Yet, like most people who dabble in hookah, they smoked socially and decided to bring that service to rural universities that have few outing options, especially for under-21 students.
Koal Hookah has a “bring your own beverage” policy for the 21-and-up crowd, but 18 is the minimum age to smoke shisha, the mixture of tobacco, molasses and sugar that is almost exclusively smoked through a hookah.
Customers pick a shisha flavor, and larger hookahs with a higher number of hoses – mouthpieces for inhaling smoke – are provided to larger groups. Double apple is the most popular flavor at Koal Hookah, and tobacco-free flavors also are available.
Ice can be added to the base of the hookah to cool and thicken the smoke, subsequently making it easier for more experienced smokers to blow smoke rings.
Shisha is placed in a bowl at the top of the hookah and covered with foil, which is then topped with hot coals to burn the tobacco. The bottom of the vase is filled with about an inch of water, which cools and humidifies the smoke as it bubbles through it during each inhale. Juices, flavored beverages and even energy drinks are sometimes substituted for water.
At Koal Hookah, one blend serves up caffeinated shisha with Monster Energy drink in the base. It remains to be seen whether this blend will be the shisha of choice during finals week.
Customers can sit at a couch or table, depending on their mood and the number of people in their party. The atmosphere changes drastically depending on the day of the week, but most hookah lovers say it’s the social aspect that keeps them coming back.
“It provides something for everyone to come together around instead of sitting around a circle empty-handed,” Chatta said.
Hookah has been around hundreds of years, with some speculating that it was invented by a physician under the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar I in India. The habit of socially smoking hookah expanded to the Middle East and became enmeshed in the culture.
While hookah has been in the United States for at least two decades, many people incorrectly believe it’s a device used to smoke illegal drugs.
“There aren’t any highs or anything that you get with it,” Chatta said. “It’s a mild, nice taste and it makes you relaxed. Just as a lot of older individuals use pipe tobacco and sit in the comfort of their own home, we provide a comfortable environment here for younger people to come in, enjoy, be with their friends and have a good time.”
While it doesn’t produce a high, hookah smokers will still get a buzz. Less experienced smokers may become light-headed and develop a headache if they continue to smoke for the duration of the bowl, which can burn for up to an hour.
Brian A. Primack, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said that buzz is partly caused by the inhalation of carbon monoxide from the burning charcoal.
While it may come as a shock to hookah lovers accustomed to the smooth taste of shisha smoke, Primack said one hookah session delivers a smoke volume equivalent to 100 cigarettes.
“It can deliver that much volume because the water cools it down and makes it more palatable, and because people can take very deep puffs,” Primack said. “The smoke itself – even though it’s 100 times (that of a cigarette) – is not as concentrated with toxicants as cigarette smoke.”
However, Primack said because a hookah session lasts longer and smokers generally take more puffs, smokers are getting 30 to 40 times the tar of one cigarette, as well as two to three times the nicotine; 10 times as much carbon monoxide; and 20 times as many carcinogens.
Yet, the long-term effects are more difficult to quantify because hookah has not been around long enough to study, and hookah smokers generally don’t smoke daily.
Despite the risks, half a dozen hookah lounges have popped up in the Pittsburgh area over the last decade. Sphinx Cafe, housed in a converted church replete with Egyptian tapestries and floor cushions, was one of the first hookah lounges to open in 2003. The business got its start on the South Side of Pittsburgh and initially offered just five flavors of shisha. Now, Sphinx Cafe’s Oakland location offers more than 90 pairings of flavored shisha.
Hookah Bookah Cafe opened about four years later on East Carson Street in the South Side. Morgantown, W.Va., gained a new college hangout spot in 2010 with X-Hale Hookah Lounge, which hosts a DJ every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
Mint Hookah Bar & Lounge, which opened in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh in 2012, also has a DJ Friday and Saturday nights and hosts a bellydancer every other Saturday.
Heavenly Hookah opened two locations in Wexford and Bloomfield in the past two years and will soon open a third in Beaver Falls. Owner Rich Morrison said he looked into the possibility of opening a lounge in the Washington area and wouldn’t rule it out.
Tobacco 4 Less, which opened nearly two years ago on North Main Street in Washington, sells a variety of hookahs and 50 flavors of shisha. Flavors run the gamut from cotton candy to one holiday option called Cupid’s Arrow, which tastes like Valentine’s Day candy hearts. Store managers said they had to expand their flavor base to accommodate customers.
“I’m not a real smoker. I don’t smoke cigarettes … To me, it’s about hanging out with friends,” manager Darin Krushnowski said of the appeal of hookah.
The store hosted hookah nights every Friday night last summer, but store owner Barry Belin said only about a dozen people attended over the course of six months. The store will currently accept hookah reservations for groups of four to six people, but no one has yet expressed an interest.
Belin said he hopes to again offer hookah nights beginning around May, and eventually have a cigar smoking lounge.
Cal U. student Dakota Patsfield, 22, is a regular customer at Koal Hookah Lounge and said she enjoys it because it provides an alternative to bar-hopping.
“It’s definitely a different scene,” Patsfield said. “I’m old enough to get into the bar scene, which on occasion I do that after having chilled at the hookah bar, but sometimes this is my last stop just because you run into some cool people here.”
Patsfield said her favorite flavor of shisha is pineapple because it’s “really sweet and still mild at the same time,” but overall, it’s more about the atmosphere than the smoking itself.
“It’s just chill here,” she said. “I like that it’s targeted toward the college demographic. It’s a good vibe.”