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The young crowd is gaga over tobacco via hookah, spooking health officials

Some restaurants and bars offer water- cooled hookahs filled with tobaccos whose flavors sound more like bubblegum: watermelon, apple, cherry, chocolate chip. Some restaurants and bars offer water- cooled hookahs filled with tobaccos whose flavors sound more like bubblegum: watermelon, apple, cherry, chocolate chip. (Sarah Brezinsky for the Boston Globe/File 2002)

On a candle-lighted patio on Newbury Street, surrounded by glittering cafes and boutiques with lower-case names, three college students in jeans are performing an ancient ritual. Beside them on the warm cement sits a toddler-sized water pipe filled with strawberry-flavored tobacco.

"I just heard about it from my friend," said Michele McLemore, a first-year student at the New England Institute of Art in Brookline. "She said it was like, really chill and all that stuff."

"It's just like, the atmosphere is very relaxing," said Lee Jasmin, another first-year art student.

This is McLemore's first session with a hookah, a pipe that has been smoked for hundreds of years in Africa and Asia. The hookah hook-up cost her and her friends, who were carded before they could smoke at the Indian restaurant Kashmir, $30 for a session. Jasmin and the third student, Damien Calsi, both smoke cigarettes -- but tobacco smoked in a hookah, they say, tastes smoother, devoid of the harshness of cigarettes. They don't worry, they said, about the dangers of smoking the pipe.

"I just feel that while I'm in college, I might as well, you know, do stuff," said Calsi.

"Experience new things," added Jasmin.

Kashmir and a few other restaurants and bars offer hookahs filled with tobaccos whose flavors sound more like bubblegum: watermelon, apple, cherry, chocolate chip. A new bar that specializes in hookahs, Nile Lounge, is scheduled to open in Allston next month.

Hookahs, of course, have been used since their earliest days for drugs like opium and hashish. And while they are still a paraphernalia of choice for smoking marijuana and other illegal drugs, hookahs are growing popular -- and are legal -- as receptacles for burning tobacco.

But the hookah's resurgence among young people as a vehicle for tobacco smoking worries public health officials. Last month, the American Lung Association issued a report warning about the "deadly trend," calling hookah-smoking the first new tobacco trend of the 21st century. And a study group of the World Health Organization was so alarmed that members issued an advisory note in 2005 about the dangers of smoking tobacco through water pipes.

Many hookah smokers erroneously believe the pipe, which uses water as a filter, shields them from the dangerous chemicals in cigarette smoke, health officials warn. An hour-long session with a hookah can actually expose a user to the equivalent of 100 or more cigarettes, according to the World Health Organization's Study Group on Tobacco Product Regulation.

Although the water in hookahs absorbs some of the tobacco's nicotine, the report warned, smokers can still be exposed to enough of the chemical to become addicted.

"It's dangerous," said Walter O'Donnell, clinical director of the pulmonary and critical care division at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Because it doesn't feel like you're inhaling smoke, people do it for longer periods of time."

Brendan Bencharit, one of the partners behind Nile Lounge, argues that hookah smokers indulge far less frequently than cigarette smokers, and therefore are exposed to fewer chemicals. Until recently, when he began working long hours to ready Nile Lounge for its opening, Bencharit, 24, smoked a hookah every three or four days.

"It is tobacco. It does have inherent dangers," he said. "But the hookah's something that you do with a group of people. The risks aren't as great as smoking cigarettes."

Bencharit and his business partner, both recent Johns Hopkins University graduates, are hoping to draw crowds of college students and young adults. They decided to open Nile Lounge in Boston after learning, to their surprise, that there were few places here to smoke hookah.

The Nile will serve food, but it was licensed as a smoking bar, not a restaurant, which allows it to skirt the indoor smoking ban.

"We're just really big fans of the hookah," Bencharit said. "We've been using it for a while. We understand and we appreciate the hookah. We know exactly what we're smoking."

Until their recent resurgence, the pipes were perhaps most famously depicted in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," in which Lewis Carroll wrote about a hookah-smoking caterpillar, perched atop a toadstool, peering down at Alice.

Hookahs, water pipes that originated in ancient Persia and India, were probably first used for smoking opium or hashish. But once tobacco arrived in the Middle East and Asia, people also began smoking tobacco leaves sweetened with honey, molasses or dried fruit in hookahs.

In Charlestown, Tangierino, a Moroccan restaurant, has an attached hookah bar called the Casbah Lounge. But some of the few other places that offer hookah are seasonal, open only when the weather is warm (and dry) enough to sit on outdoor patios. Like Kashmir, the Tantric Bar & Grill, on Stuart Street, offers hookahs when the weather turns warm.

Mantra, an Indian restaurant in the Ladder District off the Common, offered hookah until the city's ban on indoor smoking in public places took effect three years ago. It does not have a patio.

Kashmir, which belongs to the same restaurant group as Mantra, began offering hookah on its outdoor patio. Business has increased in each of three years since Kashmir brought hookahs outside, said Surinder Singh, the restaurant's manager.

On some nights, he said, there's a wait for one of the restaurant's 10 hookahs. The flavored tobacco is heated with burning charcoal in the head of the pipe.

At Northeastern University, students say the hookah is popular, both in restaurants, although prices can be steep for college students, and at parties.

While most college students are too young to drink legally at bars, anyone over 18 can pay for a session with a hookah.

Stephen White, a freshman, began smoking the water pipe in high school, and continued the practice at college.

Unlike smoking cigarettes, which can be a solitary act, hookah-smoking is nearly always a social event. Some hookahs, including those rented at restaurants, have several hoses, allowing patrons to smoke simultaneously.

"It's relaxing," he said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@