Smoking hookah is not a healthy alternative to cigarettes, suggests a study by researchers at the University of Montreal. ((Canadian Press))

Hookah smoking is on the rise among Calgary teens, which supports the results of a University of Montreal study released this week.

Desiree Carlson, of the Hemporium located a couple of blocks from the city's Western Canada High School, said she's seen smoking hookah take off.

"Since I started in November, I've seen the craze of smoking shisha and hookahs go crazy," said Carlson. "Everybody's wanting it."

Hookahs or shishas are large communal water pipes designed to burn fragrant blends of tobacco or similar substances mixed with molasses. Smoking hookah is a centuries-old Middle Eastern tradition.

'I've seen the craze of smoking shisha and hookahs go crazy.' —Desiree Carlson, Hemporium

While it's illegal to sell tobacco-free hookah products to minors, the water-based pipes can be purchased by anyone.

Some of Calgary's hookah cafés offer in-house hookah smoking, circumventing indoor smoking bans by selling tobacco-free products to adults only.

"It's just a good relaxing environment and I like to smoke," said Mike Wilkie, a hookah café patron in Marda Loop. "It tastes good."

The Hemporium serves a lot of high school students with hookah-related products, said Carlson.

"There's a fair amount of younger kids that come in for the herbal," she said. "Probably because it's social, delicious and you get to smoke without harmful effects."

Not a safe alternative

Jennifer O'Loughlin, professor of medicine at the University of Montreal and co-author of the study, said smoking hookah is not a healthy alternative to cigarettes.

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, showed about 23 per cent of 871 youth aged 18 to 24 reported smoking a water pipe at least once in the previous year. Most reported smoking only on rare occasions, but five per cent had used water pipes once or more in the past month.

"It's been confirmed that the smoke does contain harmful constituents that do contain nicotine, carbon monoxide and carcinogens," said O'Loughlin. "Compared to cigarettes water pipe smoke might also contain greater amounts of tar and heavy metals such as cobalt, chromium and lead."

Researchers have also linked the product to lung cancer and heart disease.

Carlson said fruit-flavoured shisha is most popular, but other flavours include coffee, cola and Earl Grey.