SMOKING a hubbly bubbly or tobacco water pipe for one hour is as harmful as smoking up to 200 cigarettes, health experts have warned.
The growing popularity of smoking flavoured tobacco in water pipes, particularly by young people, has prompted the NSW Government to issue its first health warning urging people to quit.
Last week former health minister Reba Meagher said there was a widespread, incorrect belief that smoking water-pipe tobacco, also known as shisha, hookah and argileh, was not as harmful as smoking cigarettes.
"In fact, a one-hour session smoking a water pipe is the equivalent of smoking between 100 and 200 cigarettes," she said.
Ms Meagher said smoking water-pipe tobacco had become increasingly popular in Australia over the past 20 years, particularly among Middle Eastern youth and university students.
The World Health Organisation released a report in 2005 stating concern at its rising use in Europe and the US.
Chris Rissel, Health Promotion director at Sydney South West Area Health Service, said water-pipe smoke contained significant amounts of nicotine, carbon monoxide and tar, and higher levels of heavy metals such as arsenic and lead compared with cigarettes.
"We're increasingly seeing young people use it and the feedback we've got is people are not aware it's as bad if not worse than regular tobacco smoking," he said.
But members of the Arabic-speaking community say the practice is a centuries-old cultural tradition they plan on continuing, despite the health risks. A survey of Arabic speakers in south-west Sydney published in April found 11.4 per cent smoked shisha. Cafes and restaurants in Lakemba and Bankstown last week were filled with men and women smoking elaborate argilehs with fruit-flavoured tobacco.
Friends Omar el Darwich, 20, Ahmed Nass, 21, and Rami Abed, 20, said that, just as alcohol was used socially, smoking argilehs was a popular way to spend time with friends.
"Alcohol's not good for you, but people drink it. Us Muslims, we don't drink alcohol, but we smoke argileh," Mr el Darwich said.
Mr Nass said he was aware water-pipe tobacco was more harmful than cigarettes but said he smoked it only about once a month.
"It's mainly when all the mates gather round at a nice cafe or a game of cards. It's an Arabian thing," he said. Dr Rissel said pipe sharing could lead to the spread of infectious diseases including herpes, tuberculosis and hepatitis, while children could be harmed by second-hand smoke.
The Government will also crack down on smoking shisha inside cafes and retailers who sell water-pipe tobacco without health warnings.