LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It may be a symbol of Middle Eastern culture and a trendy pastime for British youths, but the shisha water pipe that burns sweet scented tobacco is just as bad for your health as smoking cigarettes.
Research from Britain's Department of Health and the Tobacco Control Collaborating Center showed that people who regularly smoke shisha can suffer from dangerous levels of carbon monoxide -- similar to sucking on a car exhaust or entering a room with a faulty boiler.
"We are trying to say to people 'if you want to do it, this is the effect it will have on you,'" said Paul Hooper of the Department of Health.
Hooper said results varied on how individuals inhaled the smoke, but one session of shisha smoking can result in carbon monoxide levels at least five times higher than the amount received by one cigarette.
Shisha, traditionally smoked in Middle Eastern countries, has grown in popularity in Britain, with many young people smoking the water pipe in cafes and bars around the country.
The shisha pipe, also known as a hookah or nargile, works by burning flavored tobacco on hot coals and enables users to suck the shisha through an ornate water vessel positioned underneath.
The findings showed that many shisha smokers were unaware of the dangers and didn't think of shisha as smoking.
Hooper gave an example of a pregnant woman who quit cigarette smoking to protect her unborn baby but kept smoking shisha. When she was tested for carbon monoxide, she had an extreme reading of 70 parts per million (ppm) of carbon monoxide as opposed to 30 ppm expected from a heavy smoker.
Britain's large Arab population and an increasing number of young Britons often opt for shisha bars, with their lounge style sofas and intimate surroundings, to socialize and relax.
Shisha, which has flavors like melon, cappuccino and apple, is often thought of as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes.
"People don't know how bad smoking shisha is. They think because it's flavored and social, it's fine. But actually it is as bad, if not worse," said Divya Marwaha, 24, who works at an investment bank in London.
Britain's smoking ban, which came into effect in July 2007, forced shisha cafes to take their water pipes outside and forced some out of business.
Helen Murphy, 54, from Tunisia, who owned two shisha cafes in London before the ban, turned her business into a beauty spa. Murphy, who no longer smokes, said the ban helped her to quit.
"It is harmful. Of course (people) they do realize but they enjoy having the shisha in their mouth," she added.
"Each puff is more than one cigarette -- when you take a puff of the shisha you can see how much smoke is coming out from the nose and the mouth."
However, some shisha cafes said customers who smoke the scented tobacco are aware of the dangers.
"Of course they know," said a waiter at a Middle Eastern restaurant in London. "Both (cigarettes and shisha) have nicotine. It is a different way but same result."
Editing by Steve Addison