Humectants in water pipe tobacco increase health risk

Water pipe tobacco contains humectants, such as glycerine and 1,2-propandiol. The higher the content of humectants, the stronger the smoke formation. In Germany the humectant content in water pipe tobacco is limited to 5 % in accordance with the German Tobacco Ordinance. An experimental study by BfR shows that the humectants evaporate to a very large extent during smoking and can be taken in to a considerable extent by the smoker. The known health risks of water pipe smoking, such as a high carbon monoxide exposure, is hence supplemented by another risk: "Inhaling high concentrations of glycerine or 1,2-propandiol can, for instance, result in changes to the cell epithelium in the larynx or irritations of the nasal mucosa", says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). BfR upholds its recommendation to maintain the limitation of the humectant content in water pipe tobacco at a maximum of 5 %.

Water pipes, also known as oriental tobacco pipes are smoked in large parts of the world. Depending on the country of origin, they are referred to as Shisha, Boory, Narghile, Arghile, Hookha, Goza or Hubble-Bubble. During the past years the use of water pipes has significantly increased throughout the world. According to a study by the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA), little less than 40 % of the 13 to 17-year-olds interviewed in Gemany in 2008 stated that they had already smoked a water pipe.

In Germany the Tobacco Ordinance restricts the content of humectants such as glycerine or 1,2-propandiol in water pipe tobacco to a maximum of 5 %. This results in a reduced smoke development. In countries such as Jordan, Egypt or Switzerland water pipe tobacco includes, however, a significantly higher share of humectants.

Experimental studies by BfR prove that a large part of the humectants contained in tobacco (glycerine and 1,2-propandiol) migrate to the smoke and can be inhaled. It is known from scientific literature that the inhalation of glycerine and 1,2-propandiol leads to changes to the cellular epithelium of the larynx, irritations of the nasal mucosa and even nose bleeding. For that reason BfR upholds its recommendation to maintain the maximum admissible content of humectants in water pipe tobacco at 5 %.

The studies by BfR also confirmed that many other contaminants such as carbon monoxide (CO), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) are contained in water pipe smoke. It is, therefore, to be expected that regular water pipe smoking involves similar health risks as cigarette smoking.

About BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. BfR engages in own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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