Hooked on hookah: UAE experts report surge in shisha addicts

Smoking shisha 'rising in popularity among women lured in by free offers'

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð March 18, 2008: Suleman Ali smokes Shisha in an Abu Dhabi Cafe. (Photo by Ryan Carter / The Nation)
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A rising number of UAE residents are seeking help after becoming hooked on shisha, an addiction expert has said.

Johanna Griffin, a Dubai-based specialist, said there has been a noticeable spike in patients attempting to kick the habit. They had often started smoking shisha, she revealed, unaware that evidence suggests they can be more dangerous than cigarettes.

Kamal Naji, 27, quit cigarettes before turning to shisha, which has now become a “part of his life”. He enjoys one immediately after finishing work, and another in the evening.

“You can’t smoke cigarettes anywhere and for a smoker it becomes very annoying,” the Egyptian, a regular visitor to at Al Qasimi Corniche shisha cafes in Ras Al Khaimah, said. “So I decided to quit smoking cigarettes and replace it with shisha.”

He says his body is now “programmed” to take nicotine at specific times, rather than at regular intervals throughout the day, which he credits with making him “more relaxed and focused”.

Ms Griffin said a rising number of UAE residents were unwittingly swapping one addiction for another, even more damaging one.

Research suggests that in a one-hour shisha-smoking session, users may inhale the same amount of smoke as from 100 cigarettes. Yet unlike cigarettes, the dangers of which are well-known, some still see shisha as a comparatively harmless activity, or are under the false impression it is not addictive.

Ms Griffin has noticed a large spike, she says, in the number of her patients seeking help for shisha addictions. “People get very addicted to shisha but they often don’t realise it’s much worse than cigarettes,” she says.

“They begin to get the cravings and it’s progressive. When they start it’s once or twice a week, perhaps just a social thing, then it goes to three or four times, then every day, then two or three times a day.”

She points out that while cigarettes are laden with health warnings, shisha is sold in attractive fruit flavours. Some use it as a way to pass time and ease boredom, she said, but quickly find themselves hooked.

“I’ve had quite a few patients with shisha addictions - it’s another form of escapism,” she says. “People don’t know the effects as they do with cigarettes. They don’t realise how dangerous it can be. It is an addictive substance.  Quite often I will get people who will have two or three addictions, and one of them will be shisha.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Left, Olfa Baraker, 37, and Abir Abidi, 26, hang out at Family Park, opposite the Corniche during Ramadan season on May 19, 2018. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
Olfa Baraker, 37, and Abir Abidi, 26, enjoy shisha at Family Park, opposite the Corniche, early on Sunday morning. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

The dangers have been highlighted in a series of studies, and the authorities have taken some steps to discourage shisha use. In 2016, research published by New York University Abu Dhabi showed that those who smoked shisha at home were placing those who live with them at a much higher risk than if they had smoked cigarettes.

Carbon monoxide levels in rooms where shisha was used were found to be five times higher than in rooms where cigarettes were smoked, while carbon monoxide levels in rooms next to where shisha was smoked were nearly four times higher compared to rooms next to where cigarettes were smoked.

Meanwhile, the American University of Sharjah warned last year of the risk of ‘hookah sickness’ or even seizures from smoking shisha, and that it could lead to cancer, as well as potentially deadly breathing and circulation problems. Despite this, it was still seen as “more acceptable” than cigarettes, doctors warned, which have recently been hit with a 100 per cent tax to deter use.

Reham Abdullah, a 31-year-old Jordanian sales agent in RAK, admits she is among those hooked. Despite quitting during a period of illness, she found it difficult to resist as her friends are frequent smokers and she soon took it up again.

“I take the shisha with me if I go camping or to the park,” she said. “I can’t skip a day otherwise I will feel something missing and start eating too much.”


Read more:

Shisha is the biggest smoking threat to health, NYU Abu Dhabi research finds

Shisha is 'much worst for smokers than cigarettes' 


While it was once seen as a social taboo for women to smoke in public, shisha is finding a new market among women, according to Dalia Faroq, the manager of Aroma Cafe at Al Qasimi Corniche in RAK.

In many outlets shisha is offered to women for free, in an extension of the popular ‘ladies night’ promotions in many UAE bars.

Ms Faroq opens the shop at 10am, and says that by 11am a steady stream of regulars will arrive, who will also return in the evening.

“Some of our customers have their own shisha labelled by their names and only used by them, they stay for around two hours in the morning and another two to three hours after 8pm,” the 38-year-old said. Most of her customers, around 70 per cent, are Egyptian, with 20 per cent Emiratis and the last 10 per cent mixed.

“It’s very popular among women these days and many offer it for free or with a discount as part of a promotion to advertise the café and get more customers,” she said.

She added that many were in the habit of smoking shisha at set times and suggested that they could not quit if they wanted, or not without professional help.

“Our regular customers are always on time and they hardly miss a day even during the weekends unless they are out of the emirate then I’m sure they visit another shisha cafe to fulfil their need,” she said.

“It’s definitely an addiction and I’m sure that smokers need help if they decided to quit, it’s not an easy thing to do by yourself especially if you have family members or friends who smoke too.”