Researchers at the University of York has shown that a drug commonly used to help smokers overcome addiction to cigarettes does not have the same effect in shisha smokers.

Researchers at the University of York has shown that a drug commonly used to help smokers overcome addiction to cigarettes does not have the same effect in shisha smokers. Shisha, or hookah smoking, is popular with young people across the globe

Smoking tobacco through a water pipe, often referred to as shisha or hookah smoking, is becoming popular, particularly among young people, across the globe.  It is often considered a ‘safer’ alternative to cigarette smoking – a common misconception.

Research at the University of York, involving a trial with more than 500 daily shisha smokers in Pakistan, where shisha smoking is particularly common, showed that varenicline – a medication used to help tackle cigarette smoking – did not make a difference in assisting shisha smokers break the habit.

Health risk

Professor Kamran Siddiqi, from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences and Hull York Medical School, said: “Shisha smokers inhale large volumes of tobacco and charcoal smoke exposing themselves to the same health risks as cigarette smokers, including a variety of cancers.

“Flavoured tobacco smoking, such as fruit shisha, has become particularly popular with young people, and in some countries, the hookah is a tourist attraction in some bars and restaurants.

“While most countries, Pakistan included, recognize the dangers of shisha smoking, it can be difficult to regulate and medications to help people quit can prove too expensive in some parts of the world.”

Pakistan trial

The research trial consisted of both men and women living in Pakistan; half were treated with the drug varenicline, and the other with a placebo drug. The treatment programme was supplemented with advice on changing behaviors to address some of the psychological aspects of addiction.   

Results showed that varenicline was not more effective than placebo interventions. The researchers suggest that this is not necessarily because the drug does not work in shisha smokers, but that despite the willingness of participants to quit, only a minority made a serious attempt at quitting all forms of tobacco. 

The study demonstrated that shisha smokers in the trial were highly dependent and many smoked cigarettes as well, reducing the efficacy of the drug.

Layers of addiction

Dr. Omar Dogar, from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences, said: “The drug, varenicline, attaches to the nicotine receptors in the brain and deactivates them, alleviating the symptoms of craving, but along with the drug there still has to be a willingness to quit smoking.