On his last night of finals before the winter break at the University of California, Los Angeles, junior Aaron Rothe, 20, was ready to celebrate. So together with a couple of buddies, he made his way to a local cafe, where they sparked up a water pipe and took turns inhaling its piquant smoke. No, California hasn't legalized the recreational use of marijuana. At cafes around UCLA and in college towns across the country, students are passing around the hookah, the ancient Middle Eastern water pipe filled with sweetened tobacco.
For centuries, men in the Middle East have gathered around hookahs to puff fruit-scented smoke, talk and pass the time. In the West, however, the water pipe became synonymous with drug culture in the 1960s, an association that lingers. But in the past couple of years, the hookah has been resurrected in youth-oriented coffeehouses, restaurants and bars, supplanting the cigar as the tobacco fad of the moment. "It's a social thing to do. You can get a hookah and hang out," says Rothe, passing the hose to his friends at the Parisian-style Gypsy Cafe. "It's really smooth, like flavored steam almost." The tobacco, wholesalers say, is grown in low-nitrogen soil, which makes its nicotine content lower than what is found in cigarettes.
Danny McGoldrick, research director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, thinks such claims are just blowing smoke. "There is no safe form of tobacco," he says. "There is a danger that young people will see a hookah as something that is fun, yet develop a nicotine addiction." Hoping that the pipe is a passing fad, McGoldrick says the campaign has not done any antihookah outreach thus far. Nor have UCLA health officials, who say tobacco is not a major problem on campus.
Health concerns certainly haven't kept the pipe's young converts away. Passing around a hookah with friends has become so popular at UCLA that there are now two hookah lounges a stone's throw from the campus. Patrons can play board games on sidewalk tables outside the Gypsy or sip coffee and relax in the dark, smoky interior of the Habibi Cafe across the street.
The Gypsy Cafe, which has been in business for 15 years, serves up as many as 200 hookahs a night at $10 a pipe. At the Habibi, which opened two years ago and turns into a dance club of sorts after hours, with patrons shimmying to Middle Eastern and other ethnic tunes (both cafes are open until the early-morning hours on weekends), smokers have rented more than 500 hookahs in a night. It is not unusual to wait up to an hour for a table at either place on weekends. The Gypsy serves beer and wine with its menu, while the Habibi serves no alcohol. Still, the latter's hazy, dimly lit lounge, with people sprawled lazily on animal-print couches, puffing away, evokes the decadent look of an opium den. "I have a lot of people come in and say, 'Are you smoking weed? What is that?'" chuckles Mickey Fathi, who co-owns the Habibi with his father Saad. "They kind of look at it like it's a bong or something."