Inside the hookah bar, the air is thick with sweet-smelling smoke. Four Michigan youths sit in a corner booth, looking at the menu. They are relaxing, munching on bar food, kidding around and taking long drags of flavored smoke through a mouthpiece, unaware of the dangers of this growing trend.

Inside the hookah bar, the air is thick with sweet-smelling smoke. Four Michigan youths sit in a corner booth, looking at the menu. They are relaxing, munching on bar food, kidding around and taking long drags of flavored smoke through a mouthpiece, unaware of the dangers of this growing trend.

Ahmad Seblini, 21, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., gets his favorite hookah flavor: grape-lemon tobacco.

"See, the water filters everything," Seblini says, pointing at a hookah on the table.

But he's dead wrong. Hookahs are also called water pipes. The tobacco is heated and the smoke passes through a bowl of water or juice to cool it. The smoker draws the smoke through a mouthpiece connected to the pipe by a rubber hose.

Hookahs come in all sizes. One is so small it looks like a crack pipe while other hookahs stand several feet tall and are made of crystal.

They can cost $10 to several hundred dollars. The flavors range from bubblegum to margarita to coffee. It is cheaper to smoke hookah tobacco than cigarettes, which makes it even more attractive to young smokers.

"Really, it's not bad for you," Seblini says.

Wali Altahif stands a few feet away. He works for the Arab-American and Chaldean Council and is on a mission to educate people about the dangers of hookah smoking. He grimaces but waits for the right time to correct Seblini.

Olivia Polychroni, 18, takes another drag. "There is no nicotine in this," she says. Altahif can't wait any longer.

"Of course there is," Altahif says.

For several years, hookah bars have been popping up across metro Detroit. There are more than 100 establishments in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in Michigan, where you can buy hookah products. Most are in Dearborn, where hookahs are sold everywhere from a kitchen supply center to restaurants. Hookah use is part of the Middle Eastern culture.

But many users don't know the dangers. The World Health Organization and the American Lung Association recently have released reports listing the dangers of using water pipes, calling it a deadly trend.

Smoking a hookah is worse than smoking a cigarette because more smoke is inhaled over a longer period of time. During a 45-minute session, a water-pipe smoker may inhale as much smoke as consuming the volume of 100 or more cigarettes, according to the World Health Organization.

"Can you get addicted to it?" Polychroni asks.

"It is addictive," Altahif says.

"It is?" she asks, surprised.

"You know how you think the water filters it?" Altahif says, trying to educate without being preachy. "All the water does is cool it down."

Everyone at the table looks surprised.

"Cigarettes make your breath smell and your clothes smell, and it's really nasty," says Stacey Fricke, 18. "This doesn't leave that nasty taste in your mouth."

"How do you feel in the morning?" Altahif asks.

"I drink a lot of water and sleep with a vaporizer," says Fricke, who is studying acting at Wayne State University.

"Actually, your school has done very good research on it," Altahif says. " You'll see it — well informed research. Look it up." Altahif is trying to be diplomatic, hoping to inform without driving away business and getting kicked out of the cafe.

"I can't go into details because the owner would get mad but it's worse than cigarettes," Altahif says.

Altahif has visited the cafe several times. He points to the bottom of the menu. In fine print, it reads: You must be 18 years of age to smoke hookah.

It's a small victory. But it's something.

Altahif, 35, is a former heavy smoker. His grandparents came here from Yemen. He has tried the hookah, but after reading about the dangers, he became concerned. Now, educating people about the hookah is his job and his passion.

Hookah is an ancient form of tobacco use, originating 500 years ago. Dr. Virginia Hill Rice, a professor at Wayne State, has studied tobacco use in the Arab-American community in Dearborn. Rice said there are two types of smokers who use the hookah.

First, there are people of Middle Eastern descent who have been exposed to water pipes since they were children.

The second group is from mainstream America, mostly college kids swept up in a fad. And now it is spreading to high schools and middle schools.

Later this year, Rice will research water-pipe usage among sixth-graders in Dearborn. "This is a family behavior," Rice said. "The study will focus on the child, the family and the community."

Hookah is a cultural tradition, which makes it harder for users to break the habit.

"You aren't just dealing with a physiological addiction," Rice said. "You are dealing with a cultural addiction, too, in a way."

Altahi travels around Michigan, going into cafes and stores that sell hookahs.

He tells store managers they must put the hookah tobacco behind the counter away from children. And he urges them to follow state law and post signs that say no one younger than 18 can buy hookah tobacco.

Know the risks

An American Lung Association report about the dangers of water pipes includes:

s Hookah use is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.

s A typical water pipe-smoking session lasts 40 to 45 minutes, versus five to 10 minutes to smoke a cigarette, so exposure to dangerous chemicals is increased with hookah use.

The Arab-American and Chaldean Council has produced a pamphlet about water pipes. On one side, it is written in English. On the other, the details are in Arabic. The pamphlet warns:

s There is a higher prevalence of smoking-related disease among people who smoke the hookah.

s There is a risk of gum disease and tooth loss.

s Sharing the mouthpiece increases the risk of getting viruses such as colds and oral infections.

s There are risks of second-hand smoke at hookah cafes. Children exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of asthma, throat and ear infections and permanent decrease in lung function.