Arguably more of us would partake in the ritual puffing of a shisha pipe if the habit didn't come with a long list of health warnings. Now, a new nicotine and tar-free shisha product that has recently arrived in the UAE might just change the habits of smokers - and non-smokers - alike.
We talk to Leila Ostovar, the marketing director of Protrac, the regional distributor of Shiazo Steam Stone Shisha, about the smoke, steam and stones.
What exactly is this new "healthy hookah" product?
It's a steam hookah that replaces tobacco leaves with 100 per cent natural stones, an innovation from Germany called PIM technology (Pressure Injection Method). People can use them in exactly the same way they would a normal shisha, except when heat is applied to the hookah-head containing the stones, the aroma fluids within them reach their boiling point and vaporise into a thick, flavourful steam instead of tobacco smoke.
As there is no nicotine or sugar used, there are no side effects. The stones even produce 20 per cent more smoke (or "steam") than a traditional hookah, which enhances the experience for many. Hopefully, it will replace tobacco, because everything is the same but in a healthy way.
If blindfolded, would regular shisha smokers be able to tell the difference?
The taste and smell is the same so I would say probably not. I would compare it to drinking coffee without caffeine, for example. I'm sure a lot of people will like the healthy shisha more if anything, because it doesn't burn the throat and the smell is not as strong for passive smokers.
What's the demographic of the people who have bought the product from you so far?
Most of them have been Arabs: Emirati, Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian. We've had some Europeans, too. The buyers have mostly been between 29 to 45 years of age. Most customers like to smoke shisha with friends or in a majlis-like setting and the majority come to buy supplies one day before the weekend.
Is it really the same though? Apparently yes...
Maha Matar is a 25-year-old cabin crew worker from Lebanon who lives in Dubai. Steam-based shisha is helping her kick a five-year, daily habit with the traditional variety - preceded by years of smoking cigarettes.
"It's a little bit more expensive than traditional tobacco but it's worth it to buy a healthy alternative. I cannot tell the difference between the taste and smell of the "new" shisha and the old one. There are no disadvantages; only advantages, as I see it. For example, with conventional shisha, I would sometimes have a mild pain in my throat after smoking for a while and a distinctive taste in my mouth. With the steam stones, I never get this sensation. I would wake up feeling pretty bad when I smoked the old shisha. With this one, I feel totally fresh, normal - as if I hadn't smoked at all. There's also no smell of tobacco in my clothes or hair. Also, with the burning time, I used to be able to use the old shisha for 30 minutes to an hour maximum before it needed to be changed. My new shisha stones can last for up to two hours. I've encouraged other smokers to try it and three of them I regularly smoke with have already switched. Even for the older generation, I feel sure that once they try it they will really love it, because there's really no difference at all."
Subash K, a specialist pulmonologist at Prime Healthcare Group in Deira, Dubai, warns against traditional shisha but doesn't see anything wrong with a steam-powered version - even one that has been flavoured.
"Steam as such will not cause any problem; it humidifies the airways and liquefies phlegm in your lungs allowing you to spit it out," he says. "Unlike tobacco, steam won't cause problems in terms of burning the pulmonary area."
For enquiries and deliveries, email firstname.lastname@example.org. A 100-gram box makes eight shishas and sells for Dh49.