It was the first night of college, in that uncomfortable expanse after everyone finished arranging their Target "Dorm Collection" lamps but before anyone had splintered into permanent friend units. A group of us sat in the common room of my all-female dorm, debating what to do on our first night in Washington, D.C.—the big city.
"Why don't we go smoke hookah?" suggested the girl with the nose ring.
"No!" I thought, reflexively falling back on my D.A.R.E. program indoctrination. "That sounds like a drug, and I don't do drugs."
Instead, I meekly asked, "Um, like, what's hookah?"
"Oh, it's like smoking a cigarette, but you smoke the tobacco through water, so it's not as bad for you," the girl said. "My older brother does it all the time."
This was before iPhones, so none of us could find fault with Nose Ring’s impeccable logic.
Thus I spent the first of many college nights lounging in one of D.C.'s vaguely Middle-Eastern hookah bars. In between bites of oily hummus, we’d pass around a mouthpiece—which I coolly resisted wiping before each use—and sucked in smoke that came in flavors like “sweet melon” and “queen of sex.”
It turns out I was one of the 25 percent of college women who try hookah for the first time their freshman year. Perhaps because of their perceived relative safety, hookahs—also known as shishas or water pipes—are growing increasingly popular among young people. Almost twice as many high-school students smoke hookah as smoke e-cigarettes. A survey of eight North Carolina colleges found that 40 percent of students reported having ever smoked tobacco from a hookah—just slightly under the number who said they had ever smoked a cigarette (47 percent). The majority of hookah users think they're safer than cigarettes.