ALLENTOWN, PA. — Bachir Letayf smokes socially, but not cigarettes or cigars. His habit involves a water pipe, or "arg," a legacy of his Lebanese roots that is gaining in popularity across the country.
"It's something everybody does at Arabic gatherings," said the 28-year-old engineer from Northampton, who smokes tobacco with cousins and friends at parties or while watching TV.
Although the arghile (ah-GEE-la) is an ancient and ornate symbol of Arabic cultures, Americans may know it better as a hookah.
Health officials fear its use is risking the health of young people who consider the practice cool as well as those who view the pipe as less dangerous because its smoke passes through water before being inhaled.
To find out, the Allentown and Bethlehem health bureaus obtained a first-of-its-kind $100,000 grant to survey Arab Americans in Lehigh and Northampton counties about their smoking habits in general and their use of arghiles in particular.
Arab Americans represent a large segment of the Lehigh Valley population. They also smoke more than any other ethnic group after American Indians and Alaskan natives, said MaryEllen Shiels, a chronic-disease manager with the Allentown Health Bureau.
If officials could better understand these smoking habits and perceptions, Shiels said, they might be able to persuade Arab Americans and others to stop.
To date, bureau staffers have surveyed 300 Arab Americans, including Letayf, who said he smokes two or three times a week and never alone.
He said the arghile is "welcomed" in the Arabic community because it is believed to be less habit-forming. The water pipe is not as portable as cigarettes, and the smoke is usually shared.
In many Lebanese and other Arab families, however, the water pipe is merely an ornately decorated fixture in the living room that is not used, Letayf said.
Kristen Wenrich, health risk behaviors manager for the Bethlehem Health Bureau, said it's a misconception that water pipe smoking is not harmful.
In a report released this spring, the American Lung Assn. called water pipe smoking "an emerging deadly trend." The group said that although the practice dates to ancient times in Persia and India, it is relatively new in the United States. Many major cities and some college campuses permit hookah smoking in bars and lounges.
The World Health Organization also declared water pipe smoking unhealthy in a report released in May. The report said water pipe smokers may inhale the equivalent smoke of 100 or more cigarettes in one session.
Smoke bubbles through the pipe's water before it is inhaled, but that does not make it cleaner or less harmful, the WHO reported. The smoke still contains high levels of toxins, including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and carcinogens.
Health officials hope that spreading that message among water pipe users in the Arab American communities will help discourage other users too. That includes members of the military returning from Iraq, Wenrich said. Some are bringing back arghiles from the Arabic country and adding to the water pipe's popularity. "It is culturally related, but becoming more mainstream," she said.
The health bureaus' one-year grant covers an area where more than 16,000 Arab Americans reside. It was awarded by the American Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to smoking prevention and cessation.