The drug burning up college campuses

Hooked on Hookah
Hooked on Hookah

College: a time to expand horizons, learn new skills and ... smoke hookah? That's right, hookah lounges go hand in hand with college-town standbys like artisanal ice cream shops and coffee shops. A recent University of Florida study found that:

That's a smoking gun ... or pipe. Turns out, getting to a hookah lounge is just a short Uber or walk for many college students. The bigger the school, the easier it is to find a hookah — 3 out of 4 schools with 20,000 or more students were within 3 miles of shisha. And, according to the study, which compiled a list of hookah establishments and overlaid that on a map of colleges and universities in the U.S., only schools with smoke-free campus policies were able to keep the number of hookah lounges down.

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The results highlight just how hooked college students are getting to hookah. The smoke is rising: Nearly one-quarter of college students smoked hookah in 2014, up 5.8 percent from 2010, according to a University of Michigan study. And many are initiated at college — according to a 2012 study about one-quarter of women first try hookah their freshman year. At roughly $5 a person, hookah is often cheaper than a pack of cigarettes. Plus, it's a social experience that, unlike pot in many states, won't get you a ticket or extended time in a prison cell. What does having a hookah pipe within reach mean for how much college students smoke? The researchers aren't sure yet ("We're not claiming that there's any causational relationship," says Ramzi Salloum, who led the University of Florida study), but similar research regarding cigarette smoking concluded that more tobacco vendors yielded a higher prevalence of smoking among young ones.

See more photos of the dangerous trend:

From a health perspective, this use raises a lot of red flags. Survey says the impact of hookah use on health is not good, but many inhalers don't realize that. The majority of hookah users polled in one study thought hookah was less harmful than cigarette tobacco. But we're often wrong — lots of people thought almond milk was full of almonds, too. According to a report by the American Lung Association, hookah smoking "has been linked to many of the same diseases caused by cigarette smoking." And on top of its components, hookah was found in another study to be a gateway drug, with users more likely to use cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines and more.

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But before you start a neighborhood watch and pick up burning torches to take down these burning hotbeds, some have criticized as xenophobic a recent effort in Seattle to curb hookah lounges; in late August, the ACLU of Washington state released a letter suggesting that "city enforcement decisions that will deprive business owners of their livelihood should not be made in haste." And then, perhaps the popularity at colleges isn't as large as it appears; a University of Michigan representative said in an e-mail, "We don't have an issue with hookah bars in our community," citing data from 2014 that only 9 percent of the school's undergraduates reported using a hookah in the past 30 days. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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Originally published