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Passing the Pipe

The communal smoking of flavored tobacco in fancy water pipes is a club and cafe craze.

May 01, 2002|CHRISTINE FREY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At an outdoor cafe in Pacific Beach, Ryan Sims is passed the pipe. Taking the mouthpiece, he sucks in the sweet scent, then pauses a moment. The 23-year-old exhales white wisps of strawberry, raspberry and pineapple.

"It's like smoking perfume," laughs his friend, Jaclyn Markle, 20.

In Egypt, it's called a sheesha. In Turkey, it's called a nargile. In California clubs and nightspots, it's called a hookah. Common throughout the Middle East where it originated several hundred years ago, the water pipe is popping up in American restaurants, coffeehouses and bars.

Many of the people lighting up are young--some still teens, most college age--and include not only those who smoke other tobacco products but those who consider themselves nonsmokers. Unlike smoking cigarettes, traditional pipes and cigars, smoking a hookah is a communal experience--more akin to the Native American tradition of passing a peace pipe than grabbing a smoke to satisfy a nicotine craving.

Many users say that the flavored tobacco is easier to inhale than that in cigarettes. The preferred pipe of the caterpillar in "Alice in Wonderland," water pipes call for a leisurely pull, and by the time the smoke is filtered through the water chamber and a long tube and hits the lungs, it is cool. Variations on the water pipe theme--especially the bong--have long been a staple of the head shops that count pot and hashish smokers among their clientele. But, for the generation currently discovering the pipes, this is not about using illegal drugs--though it is a way to toy with one of the symbols of that culture as well as sample a mild-tasting tobacco.

On a recent Friday night in Pasadena, Rachel Lesky, 25, smoked a hookah for the first time at an outside table--smoking being prohibited nearly everywhere indoors--at Equator coffeehouse. Though she is allergic to cigarette smoke, the fumes from the mixed fruit tobacco didn't bother her. "It's really mellow and very calming," Lesky said. A few tables over, a half-dozen high school students shared a hookah. The group usually gathers at the coffeehouse once a week to smoke and socialize. "I don't like the taste of cigarettes," said a La Canada 18-year-old who ordered a hookah and was sharing it with friends who were not old enough to buy tobacco, which is to say, under 18. "You don't even feel it ... It's a great social event."

Traditionally, a sheesha or nargile is smoked after a meal or with tea or coffee. A small bowl at the top of the pipe contains the tobacco, which is heated by coals placed on a foil covering. When a person inhales from an attached tube, smoke is drawn to the bottom of the pipe, where it is filtered through water.

The tobacco is mixed with fruit paste, molasses or honey for flavor--apple, cola and mint are common--and lasts for about 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon the number of people smoking. Privately, some people may smoke other substances, but those in the hookah business say that their pipe is not designed for drugs such as pot. Still, says Equator owner Teddy Bedjakian, "when you see [some people] smoking it, they're smoking it like they're smoking weed. You can hear them coughing."

Mark Ascar first met the hookah in Egypt. While visiting there, he and his friends often smoked at the end of the day or after a night on the town. "That was the focal point," said Ascar, 26. "Everyone [was] drinking, kicking back, puffing on hookahs."

Four years ago, Ascar, a 1995 UCLA business graduate, returned from one of his trips with several dozen hookahs and started selling them on Venice Beach. Now Hookah Bros. manufacturers and distributes water pipes to about 1,000 retailers, a combination of pipe shops and restaurants, around the country from its Los Angeles warehouse. The hookahs, which retail for approximately $65 to $300, stand from about 11/2 to 31/2 feet high and may have up to six tubes. Most have a colored glass bowl at the base. Bright fabric--blue leopard print or red flames--covers the tubes; plastic mouthpieces can be replaced for each smoker.

For many establishments, hookahs have become a profitable part of their business. That has led many--from five-star restaurants to trendy clubs--to add them to their menus, Ascar said.

When a customer orders up a pipe, it comes with a pinch of tobacco available in a variety of flavors. Ordering a hookah can cost anywhere from $4 to $13; tobacco refills run about $5.

Only those 18 and older can legally purchase tobacco, and most places check IDs. Sinbad Cafe in San Diego County's Pacific Beach has a bouncer who checks IDs at the door, and at Gypsy Cafe in Westwood, owner Joseph Melamed even had a customer arrested for using a fake ID. Some establishments, though, only require seeing the ID of the person purchasing the hookah, not everyone smoking it. Which means that at a table where an 18-year-old orders the pipe, there may well be smokers under 18--usually classmates.

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