Many people smoke water pipes — known as hookahs — as an alternative to cigarettes because they believe that it is less dangerous and doesn't have any of the bad side effects associated with cigarettes. It's a social habit, and many bars are now adopting them as a draw for crowds in a competitive business.

But a new research study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention has shown that hookah smoke may expose users to different toxic chemicals and could result in different types of cancer than cigarette smoke.

"Water-pipe smoking at 'hookah bars' has become popular with young people in the United States, and some believe that it is less harmful than cigarette smoking," said Peyton Jacob III, Ph.D., a University of California, San Francisco research chemist at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. "We report for the first time that toxicant exposures from water-pipe and cigarette smoking differed in pattern, with higher exposure to some toxicants like carbon monoxide and benzene in water-pipe smokers."

Researchers asked 13 healthy adults (eight men and five women) who were experienced in smoking hookah and cigarettes to participate in the experiment. Study participants smoked either four days every day and then at a later time they were told to smoke hookah for the same time period. This was done to compare the effects of the different smoking methods in the same person.

Water pipe smoking exposed participants to half the amount of nicotine as cigarettes. Researchers also found carbon monoxide levels that were 2.5 times higher in people who smoked from a water pipe during a 24-hour period. Carbon monoxide can increase the risk for heart attack, stroke and sudden death in people with heart or lung diseases.

Metabolites of the cancer causing industrial chemical, benzene, was detected at far higher levels in the urine of water pipe smokers. Benzene exposure is known to cause leukemia in people.

"People want to know if it is a lesser health risk if they switch from cigarettes to smoking a water pipe on a daily basis," said Jacob. "We found that water-pipe smoking is not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, nor is it likely to be an effective harm reduction strategy."

The research published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention can be found here.