Take it from a nicotine addict, shisha is no joke

I hate what being a smoker says about me – that I am weak; that I don’t care enough about my body not to poison it on an hourly basis

A woman smokes waterpipe (Shisha) at a cafe in Dubai on May 31, 2008. The Gulf emirate of Dubai banned the sale of tobacco to anyone under the age of 20 with immediate effect and barred young people from public areas in which smoking is allowed. The announcement was made in public advertisements in Arabic-language newspapers as part of a "Youth Without Tobacco" campaign. The campaign was launched to coincide with World No Tobacco Day on May 31. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI (Photo by MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP)
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I cannot tell a lie. I am typing this with one hand; in the other, I am holding a shisha pipe. I am at my neighbourhood shisha joint, which also doubles as my office away from the office on evenings where I have to work late but need a change of scenery. It's a two-minute drive from my house, so has become the place I come to if I need a quick bite to eat but don't have the energy to make anything for myself, or where I arrange to meet friends if I can't be bothered to change out of my ­tracksuit bottoms and flip flops. 

It has that atmosphere that's particular to a shisha cafe – laid-back, informal, welcoming. A fug of sweet smelling smoke lingers in the air. It's the kind of place where the waiters remember your name; where groups of friends gather in the evenings to play cards, becoming increasingly animated as the night wears on; where on the weekends, a live musician plays traditional ­Arabic songs on his oud, but ­struggles to make himself heard over the sound of good-humoured revelry and the rolling of dice as regulars battle it out over backgammon boards. It has one of those curious menus that ­covers every conceivable cuisine – from California rolls to shish tawook and spaghetti bolognese. 

But don’t be fooled, there be danger here …

A new UAE study has confirmed what every shisha lover has long suspected: there are higher levels of cancer-causing metals in shisha products than in cigarettes. The ­research was co-authored by ­Professor Mohamed Al Hajjaj of the University of Sharjah, Abdus Khan of Khalifa University, Abu Dhabi, and Shabber Mohammed and Masrath ­Mohammed, both of Jazan ­University, Saudi Arabia, and ­published in Oxford University Press's Journal of Analytical Toxicology

The study looked at 13 medwakh tobacco products and three shisha products, analysing their properties to determine metal concentrations. Their findings may not have been surprising, but they were terrifying all the same. Shisha tobacco contains more nickel, chromium, copper and zinc than cigarettes. What’s more, shisha pipes have absolutely no filters, so trace elements enter the lungs more quickly, potentially leading to a whole host of highly unpleasant lung, oral and cardiovascular diseases. To make matters worse, people smoke shisha for much longer periods than it takes to puff on a single cigarette.

As Dr Noordin Wadhvaniya, a ­respiratory medicine specialist at the Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai, told The National: "The ­average shisha-smoking session lasts an hour, and research has shown that in this time you can inhale the same amount of smoke as from more than 100 cigarettes."

I have spent the best part of two ­decades battling nicotine addiction. I hate what being a smoker says about me – that I am weak; that I don’t care enough about my body not to poison it on an hourly basis; that I am happy to go around smelling like an overflowing ashtray. I am under no illusions about this hideous habit.

I pity my poor lungs and am filled with gratitude that they have put up with so much abuse for so long. When I climbed Kilimanjaro a few years ago, I was so grateful to my lungs for getting me to the top that I vowed to never smoke again. That lasted about as long as it took me to get off the mountain.

I have quit smoking on numerous occasions – I am, in fact, a living embodiment of that famous Mark Twain quote: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”


Read more of Selina's thoughts:

Only 8 per cent of people stick to their resolutions – but I’ll give it a go 

UAE expat view: How being home for the holidays is like travelling back in time

Our smartphones are turning us into holier than thou vigilantes

From Dubai to Abu Dhabi: some lessons learnt on a long commute


Shisha has been my downfall on every occasion that I have tried to give up smoking. It is particularly sneaky and insidious, you see. For a start, it smells and tastes much better than your average cigarette. And where, in the rest of the world, smoking has become the epitome of anti-social behaviour, and smokers are generally treated like social pariahs, shisha is still an incredibly sociable and socially acceptable thing to do. 

You are not bombarded with the same health warnings that are now to be found emblazoned across boxes of cigarettes. And because you can’t carry a shisha pipe around with you, it gives you the impression that you are in control of your habit, that it can be contained. Until you find yourself in your local on Friday having a mint tea and “double apple” for breakfast. 

Take it from a relapsed nicotine addict, shisha is no joke.