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Water pipes: Not a harmless alternative to cigarettes

14/2005, 11.05.2005

BfR recommends raising awareness about health and addiction dangers

In Germany most people tend to associate water pipes with things like the Orient, foreign cultures and exotic bazaars. However, the growing number of inquiries being received by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) on the health and addiction dangers of smoking a water pipe is an indication that tobacco is increasingly being consumed in this way in Germany, too, particularly by adolescents. BfR has assessed the related health risks for the first time. The Institute has come to the conclusion that the smoking of water pipes is scarcely less harmful than the smoking of cigarettes. There is a similar risk of addiction. "The few scientific studies available up to now even seem to indicate that larger amounts of contaminants like tar and carbon monoxide are taken in from the smoke of water pipes than from non-filter cigarettes", said BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. The Institute recommends including water pipes in awareness-raising activities concerning the dangers of smoking.

Water pipes are not a harmless alternative to cigarettes. According to the first studies now available, it is even possible that more tar and carbon monoxide are taken in from smoking a water pipe than from non-filter cigarettes. Furthermore, in some cases high levels of carcinogenic substances like arsenic, chromium and nickel have been detected in the smoke of water pipes. In people who had smoked a water pipe for many years, deteriorations were observed in pulmonary function and an increased risk of tumours was observed amongst other things.

The constituent, nicotine, is responsible for the addictive action of tobacco. The intake of high amounts of nicotine and the related addiction and health dangers are the biggest problem linked to the use of water pipes according to the current level of scientific knowledge. Aside from the risks of the contaminants in the smoke and the danger of addiction, the sharing of water pipes can promote the spread of infectious diseases. In order to be able to quantitatively assess the health and addiction dangers, further studies are required. There is a need, in particular, for standardised methods to measure contaminant levels in water pipe smoke.

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