Jessica A. Kulak, PhD

Hookah use is playing a meaningful role in the tobacco product landscape, according to two recently published studies by Jessica A. Kulak, PhD.

Studies Find Hookah Plays Important Role in Tobacco Use

Published May 10, 2018

Two recently published studies on the emergence of hookah use suggest that public health officials may need to broaden their tobacco control prevention efforts beyond traditional cigarettes.

“Taken together, the results from these two studies underscore the important role hookah has played in the tobacco product landscape.”
Jessica A. Kulak, PhD
Postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Family Medicine’s Primary Care Research Institute

Added Role in Tobacco Product Landscape

“Taken together, the results from these two studies underscore the important role hookah has played in the tobacco product landscape,” says Jessica A. Kulak, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Primary Care Research Institute housed in the Department of Family Medicine.

Kulak is lead author on both papers, which were published as part of her dissertation through collaborations with colleagues at UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, the Rutgers University School of Public Health and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Examining Trends Among High School Students

The first study, published in March in the American Journal of Health Behavior, examined patterns and trends of hookah use among public high school students in New Jersey.

The Rutgers School of Public Health has collected the New Jersey Youth Tobacco Survey biennially since 1998. Questions about hookah use were introduced in 2008; Kulak analyzed four waves of the survey stemming from 2008 to 2014.

The findings show significant increases in hookah use across three indicators — those who have ever used hookah, those who currently do and those who smoke hookah frequently.

Overall, 23.6 percent of New Jersey high school students had ever used hookah in 2014, significantly higher than the nearly 18 percent who reported ever using it in 2008, Kulak and her colleagues reported.

In 2014, hookah use in the past 30 days (11.8 percent) was as high as e-cigarettes (12.1 percent) and higher than other tobacco products. Among all high school students, frequent hookah use increased from 1.6 percent in 2008 to 2.9 percent six years later.

Demographics of Hookah Users May Be Shifting

Researchers noted significant increases among girls and Hispanics, which is inconsistent with some previous studies that report data on “current” hookah use among youth.

“It may indicate the demographics of those who use hookah are shifting,” says Kulak, a research assistant professor of family medicine. “However, previous reports on findings by demographics do show mixed results.”

“Whereas previous work exists examining trends in current product use, this is the first study to provide an assessment of the patterns and trends of hookah products, in a representative sample, across three different indicators — ever, current and frequent use,” adds Cristine Delnevo, PhD, director of the Center for Tobacco Studies at Rutgers School of Public Health.

“Most surveillance data do not include enough detail to look at trends in ever or frequent product use, but these are important indices to consider.”

Variety of Factors Contributing to Popularity

Kulak and her colleagues cite a variety of factors that may be contributing to the popularity of hookah among teens.

For example, hookah tobacco is taxed at a lower rate than cigarettes, and it’s sold in a variety of flavors, many of which have been banned in cigarettes.

Many hookah users also believe that it’s not as harmful as other tobacco products.

Hookah Often Introductory Tobacco Product

Kulak’s second dissertation-based paper, also published in March in Substance Use & Misuse, looks at hookah’s role in nicotine product initiation among college students. For this study, Kulak surveyed 832 college students in Western and Central New York.

Among study participants who reported having used a nicotine product at some point, 25 percent said hookah was the first product they tried. Only combustible cigarettes (39.5 percent) were reported more frequently.

Among students who ever smoked cigarettes, most reported these as their introductory product. Nearly half of the students who have never smoked cigarettes reported that hookah was the first tobacco product they smoked.

Appeal May Be Based on False Perceptions

This particular study also suggests that hookah users are less likely to use multiple tobacco products — such as combustible cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco — compared to combustible cigarette users.

“That surprised me, because I expected to find that hookah is just one of a number of nicotine products that youth and young adults are experimenting with,” says Kulak, an adjunct instructor in community health and health behavior in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

“It may be the case that hookah appeals to youths and young adults who really do not experiment with nicotine products overall because of the perception that hookah is ‘safer’ or that it does not contain nicotine,” she adds.

Revising Tobacco Use Surveys Suggested

It is the first study to report that half of participants who have never smoked combustible cigarettes initiated nicotine product use with hookah, a finding that Kulak says has implications for the important role hookah is having in nicotine product initiation.

“It suggests that there is a growing interest in non-traditional nicotine products among college-aged young adults,” Kulak says.

Based on the findings of the two studies, Kulak says public health agencies may need to consider revising the surveys and other data collection instruments they use to more accurately account for hookah use.

“These projects highlight opportunities for youth tobacco surveillance systems in other states or at the national level to update their questionnaires in a way that will provide more detailed surveillance data that can better indicate the effectiveness of tobacco prevention and control policies,” Kulak says.

In addition, she says, there are opportunities for further regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, especially banning flavors in hookah tobacco.