Opinion: Devil in disguise, new drug, same old lies

There’s another new drug in town, and the System is being cranked up to counter its insidious spread. This drug is increasingly popular among the young, who consider it exotic and often try it when abroad. It’s called “The Devil in Disguise” in government propaganda, because of its supposedly devastating health effects – just one session of this drug is equivalent to smoking 100-200 cigarettes, so say the “experts”, and it can even harm nearby children.

What is it? Well, it’s the shisha water pipe (“hookah”), with tobacco. There is growing anti-shisha propaganda around, which I don’t have a problem with in principle because as we all know inhaling smoke of any kind is almost never going to be “good” for you. But I was recently driven to complain to the promoters of a leaflet because of the headline assertion that “In a shisha session lasting 60 minutes, a smoker can inhale as much smoke as a cigarette smoker would inhale from 100-200 cigarettes”. The aim of this statement is quite obviously to convince the reader that a shisha session is equivalent to 100-200 cigarettes, and the problem with that is that it’s obviously made-up.

A look on the internet reveals that this claim is repeated thousands of times in campaign material. But it’s rubbish. The LD50 (which means the dose which would kill 50% of humans receiving it) of nicotine is 30-60mg for a typical human. A cigarette provides about 1mg of nicotine. Therefore, a fatal dose of nicotine can be provided to an average human in 30-60 cigarettes, if given at once. Allowing for nicotine removal from the bloodstream by the liver over a plausible period of smoking, say up to an hour, would still mean that smoking 100 cigarettes in an hour would be fatal for the majority of humans trying it, let alone 200!

Shisha sessions of 30-60 minutes are not uncommon, but if that claim was remotely true, each session would be fatal to the majority of all users. There would quite literally be piles of dead bodies in shisha cafes and restaurants. This is obviously not the case – there are no recorded cases of sudden death during shisha smoking that I can find.

As far as I can tell, the ultimate source of this assertion is a World Health Organisation paper from 2005 – a disappointingly flimsy paper that contains no science and simply compares “volumes” of inhalation in two completely different methods of smoking. Without any attempt to quantify the concentration of the substances in the smoke, this is a worthless comparison.

This brings us back to governments and their public health accountability. Misleading the public about drugs has been the staple of governments for the last century (e.g. the infamous claim that “Modern cannabis is 50x stronger than it used to be”, when studies show that modern growing techniques can produce cannabis that can be ~4x stronger than “it used to be”). Campaigners seem intent on continually repeating the disastrous failure of attempting to scare people into not doing drugs by promoting made-up evidence, the result of which is that young people today simply ignore all government drug propaganda.

No one should be under the misapprehension that smoking shisha is “safe” – sucking smoke into your lungs isn’t safe. For the record, I am a non-smoker. But the typical use-profile of shisha (being occasional and location-based), and the difficulty of getting “hooked on hookah” as it would require carting around a full water-pipe with you to have a crafty smoke behind the bike-sheds, mean that the current rush to demonise shisha is both misguided as well as being ultimately counter-productive.

* Dr Mark Wright is a councillor in Bristol and was the 2015 general election Parliamentary candidate for Bristol South.

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6 Comments

  • 1 gramme of tobacco contains potentially enough tobacco to kill. The key point is that all this nicotine in not absorbed by the body, and indeed much is destroyed by heat from smoking. The relevance of shisha here is that the byproducts of burning tobacco are toxic, and shisha habits typically lead to much higher doses of these than average cigarette use. It has nothing to do with nicotine, other than the addictive nature of this compound and public health efforts to reduce smoking.

    Shisha should be targeted, just as cigarettes are, it costs society a fortune in its effects.

  • Mark, I’m pointing out that your first three paragraphs are based on a false premise.

    Could you provide a link to any UK based health service misleading about the risks of shisha?

  • Where exactly do you make the link with nicotine? That’s not what the advertising says, so it makes the death calculations rather pointless.

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