The room is smoky. The low-lying smog smells sweet, like roses. It permeates everything in the simple living room. The white couches facing a moderately sized TV speak of a clean, but sparse, living space.
the entryway to the kitchen hangs a sign: "To be old and wise, first one has to be young and crazy."
The coffee table between the TV and the couch has a laptop, school papers and other assorted odds and ends. In the middle of this mess sits a hookah pipe.
This is the three-bedroom duplex of three college-age women.
They play volleyball together, go to school together, hang out together. However, one of the most prominent, and possibly important, aspects of their little community is their shared inhalation of this sweet-scented smoke.
These three women smoke hookah. Technically, a hookah is just a water pipe from which anything can be smoked. However, "smoking hookah" has become synonymous with tobacco, commonly referred to as shisha (originally the word shisha simply referred to the water pipe; however, it has come to mean tobacco). This co-opting of the term is fueled by the growing value that the college-age demographic is placing on the ancient tool. The Hookah came from the northwestern providences of India in the 15th century. Originally it was used to smoke hashish and opium. Over the years it has made its way into every corner of the globe.
Holly Wulczynski, general studies, loves the rose-flavored shisha. For her, hookah is something that allows her to bond with her two roommates.
"It's one of those things, a social thing," she says while exhaling the sweet-scented smoke. "It's not like weed, where you smoke it and you're like 'Ah, I'm going to bed now.'"
Wulczynski lives with two other NIC students, Kalyn Lovlyn and Tori West, both in general studies. Lovlyn says that she and West were friends in high school. When they decided to move in together, they placed an ad on Craigslist for a third roommate. Wulczynski responded almost immediately.
"The first week we moved in we smoked at least one bowl (the area of a hookah where the shisha goes) a night," Wulczynski says.
Even now, several months later, it is still a key aspect of their social interaction.
The process of smoking hookah has a ritualistic air to it. Lovlyn, who owns the hookah, takes pride in her ability to "pack a bowl." She goes over, step-by-step, her preferred methods for preparing the tobacco. (See "How to Pack a bowl.)
They sit around the coffee table, passing the long, flexible hose from person to person. Lovlyn and Wulczynski blow smoke rings and talk about school, friends and family. Both women are healthy and active. In fact, their intramural volleyball team won a championship at NIC's intramural tournament the night before. While shisha is still tobacco, neither woman considers it as harmful to their health as cigarettes would be.
"I think I'm addicted to the social aspect of hookah," Lovlyn says.
While the belief that hookah smoke is less harmful than its ugly cousin the cigarette is comforting, research has shown otherwise.
According to an advisory report released by the World Health Organization in 2005, a person could potentially inhale the equivalent of 100 cigarettes in one 40-minute hookah session. Although the level of nicotine found in shisha is lower than that of cigarettes, this simply means that a smoker inhales more toxic chemicals, such as carbon monoxide and heavy metals. The report maintains that hookah is not a safe alternative to tobacco smoke.
Linda Michal, Dean of Students and student health agrees with the reports.
"Tobacco is tobacco is tobacco," she says. "There are some reports I know that say that water helps filter out some of the tar. The counter to that is that people inhale a lot more smoke, so they are still getting a lot of nicotine or whatever else is in the tobacco into their lungs."
In addition to the increased inhalation, she says that it could possibly lead to nicotine addiction.
"One of the problems that I see with this is that it is a social connection tool," Michal says. "And so people who might not smoke a cig might smoke hookah, because it's a way to connect with their friends. So in that sense it might draw people in."
So, while smoking hookah might seem safer, the reality is it isn't, Michal says. However, the occasional Hookah smoker most likely won't experience any negative health effects.
Finally, after several hours of relaxed puffing and chit-chatting the women pack up the hookah. For them, it's just been another night of relaxed socializing. Tomorrow, they have school, sports and the multitude of things that fill their days. And, more likely than not, they will find themselves back around the ancient tool the following night.