Young men smoking a waterpipe (AP File Photo)
( –  ‘Hoookah,’ ‘nargile,’ ‘hubbly-bubbly’ — all names for the waterpipe, a smoking instrument typically found in the Middle East in which tobacco smoke is drawn through water and cooled before the smoke is sucked into the mouth through a tube.
For the last several years, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $1 million to fund research on waterpipes and waterpipe use in studies being conducted at the Syrian Center for Tobacco Study, in Aleppo, Syria.
“We’ve done some studies in Syria just looking at the prevalence of it in the general population, and in average groups like college students,” researcher Ken Ward of the University of Memphis Department of Health and Sport Sciences, told
Ward and his associates in Syria have received a number of grants from the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the years for research on waterpipes – $21,000 for a project that ended in 2007; $326,000 in 2006 to establish the Syrian Center for Tobacco Study; $334,000 for center projects in 2004; and $438,000 in 2005.
“Right now we’re doing an intervention study in Syria, looking at how to help people who are interested in quitting to actually quit permanently,” he said.
Ward said he and his research partners have been conducting clinical laboratory studies on Syrians looking at the potential for dependence on smoking hookahs.
“Essentially, in those areas, we’ve had people who use waterpipes regularly to undergo a period of abstinence, 24 hours or so, come into the lab and we monitor the withdrawal symptoms, and then we monitor what happens after they take some waterpipe,” Ward said, with the goal of finding out if smoking a waterpipe suppresses withdrawal symptoms.
The research is being done largely in Syria, he said, because waterpipes have been used there for centuries. But waterpipe use has become a problem in the United States, affecting about 20 to 25 percent of college and high school students, he said.
“In Syria, we find that approximately 30 percent of college students have used it, more than 60 percent report ever having used it,” Ward told “Rates are even higher in Lebanon and Israel.” asked Ward, if, given the fact that we know that cigarette smoke is harmful, do we need to study what we know intuitively to be true: that waterpipes likely are as harmful as cigarettes?
“That does make intuitive sense, and the research being done does support that – but that message doesn’t seem to be getting out to young people who are using it,” Ward said. “Some of the comments we hear is that, ‘If it was dangerous, they wouldn’t be selling it.’ Of course, that’s not true for cigarettes and it’s also not true for waterpipes.”
Conservative taxpayer groups like Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) say that even if the research is a good idea, it is not necessarily something that U.S. tax dollars need to fund.
“Why is the federal taxpayer always the one who has to pay for this?” said CAGW Vice President David Williams. “We question whether this is a national priority to figure out the problems of other countries. Let’s figure out our problems and solve those.”
Part of the problem, Williams said, is that the NIH has access to many billions of dollars.
“What you have is a bunch of experts that sit around and they shake their heads, and they say, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea, let’s do research on this. Let’s have some blockbuster results,’” he said.
“Unfortunately, one of the truly blockbuster results (of the budget process) is that we have a huge deficit and national debt that taxpayers are saddled with,” said Williams.
“That’s where you have to draw the line on this kind of research and really evaluate whether or not the decision-making process, when it comes to these grants, is really solid, and whether we need to reevaluate,” he said.
The Syrian studies have been funded through the NIH’s Fogarty International Center, a branch of the federal health service that has been paying for international scientific research for the last 40 years. In FY 2009, the Fogarty Center is slated to receive $66 million.