From clubs to restaurants to city slums, Ugandans are smoking shisha wherever they can. But just how safe is it?, writes Carol Natukunda.
It is everywhere — in the bars, the slums, and university campuses. Shisha or hookah smoking is the latest craze among young people. Do not be surprised to see thick white smoke curling upward next time you visit your favourite local hangout.
These puffs do not have the chocking odour that normally comes with tobacco — they actually smell sweet — but behind that aroma lies a death trap.
Associated with the Middle East cafe culture, the shisha craze is worrying health experts, who are concerned that shisha users are oblivious of the health risks. In the bars, revellers smoke while drinking away. “It is a bonus for me,” says a DJ in a famous hangout in the city centre. “If I have beer, shisha makes me totally complete.”
The vaporiser is strategically placed next to the bar counter, creating an inviting atmosphere. The flavoured tobacco tastes smooth and smells sweet, smokers say, making it an enjoyable experience.
On the streets and university campuses, students use portable vaporisers that are small enough to fit in one’s pocket. They look similar to a pen, with a button on the side and a nozzle to smoke.
An hour session of sisha smoking costs sh10,000 at local pubs, but the price is higher in upscale bars and casinos.
Recent research done by the Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL) reveals that the shisha used in Kampala is often laced with drugs such as cannabis.
Rogers Mutaawe, the senior programmes officer at UYDEL, said the study could not establish the prevalence of shisha use in Kampala. Nevertheless, the organisation’s community workers have observed that it is common.
“When you go to the slums, it is the order of the day,” Mutaawe says. About three in every 10 people smoke tobacco and this includes sisha and all forms of tobacco products including shisha. The study also showed that minors between 13 to 15 years were also engaged in smoking tobacco.
A 2012 study from the Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) also showed that the prevalence of current tobacco smoking among Ugandan adults aged 15-54 stood at about 25%.
Last year, the World Health Organisation warned that a one-hour shisha session can be as harmful as smoking 100 cigarettes. A cigarette smoker typically takes between eight and 12 puffs, inhaling 0.5 to 0.6 litres of smoke. But during a typical hour-long shisha session, smokers may take up to 200 drags, ranging from 0.15 to 1 litre of smoke each, WHO says. Additionally, sharing the shisha pipes can transmit TB and herpes.
Already, statistics in Uganda show that there is an increase in the number of TB cases. About 50,000 TB cases are reported annually, up from 37,000 in 2001. While there are several causes for this trend, Dr. Sheila Ndyanabangyi, the principal medical officer in charge of Mental Health and Control of Substance Abuse in the health ministry says smoking shisha is as dangerous as cigarettes.
“Tobacco use greatly increases the risk of TB disease and death,” she says, adding that more than 20% of TB cases worldwide are attributed to smoking. In an earlier phone interview with Sunday Vision, Ndyanabangyi explained that shisha is only one among the many drugs on the market which are laced with addictive components such as alcohol, nicotine, and sometimes marijuana.
“The products are flavoured to disguise the tobacco components,” she said. “Sharing and using pipe exposes one to all sorts of infections.” She noted that smokeless products are not labelled and, therefore, become difficult to regulate, because they are easily passed on as harmless goods.
Mutaawe says there is need for more research on exactly how dangerous shisha is, to enable young people make an informed choice. He also says UYDEL is working hard at sensitisation and how best to get the message that sisha is dangerous to the consumer.
“We are also working on rehabilitating those addicted to drug abuse,”she adds. But some critics say it will still be a challenge. “How do you label the shisha pipe? It is not as simple as labelling a packet of cigarettes,” says a source in a tobacco company.
Public smoking is a crime in Uganda, and the punishment for perpetrators is fine of sh20,000 while hotel owners, who allow customers to smoke on their premises, pay sh300,000.