Shisha is interwoven into the social fabric of the Middle East. When people meet friends and family in cafes and restaurants, they chat away for hours while many share the traditional water pipe and everyone drinks endless cups of tea. However, shisha is undeniably a serious health risk. According to statistics presented at the Arab Health Congress in Dubai in January, it is 72 times more toxic than cigarettes and contains substantially higher levels of harmful substances such as arsenic, cobalt, lead, nickel and chromium. So shisha is bad for one's health but at least the adults who smoke it have freely chosen to do so. Not so their children.
As The National reported yesterday, there is anecdotal evidence that many children are exposed to shisha smoke and high levels of dangerous chemicals. It is unwise to take children to shisha cafes, particularly those that are poorly ventilated. Doctors say that passive smoking can cause sudden infant death syndrome and induce asthma. It is also known to reduce a child's ability to fight colds and chest and ear infections.
Many might wonder why a parent would take their child into a smoke-filled environment. But then there are many misconceptions about shisha. Some people believe that it is less harmful than cigarettes. The fruit and herb flavourings also make it seem more benign. And some think that the smoke’s negative effects are reduced because it is passed through water. While there are no firm statistics on the number of children exposed to shisha smoke, it is relatively common to see infants, toddlers and teenagers in family groups at cafes where it is served. The law prohibits smoking in cars if a child under 12 is a passenger. But except in Dubai, where it is illegal for shisha to be sold if a child under 18 is present, there are no consistent laws concerning the availability and use of water pipes in public places. No parent would knowingly expose their children to harm, so awareness campaigns to spell out the dangers of all tobacco products are a sensible first step. Venues that serve shisha could be encouraged to provide separate areas for children and more open spaces for family gatherings. The message is valid and must be conveyed.