By Kathryn Doorey

It’s nearly midnight on a chilly Friday evening in downtown Santa Cruz. Parties are winding down, bodies are sobering up, and most are preparing to call it a night. But for the large crowd at Nomad Hookah Lounge, the night has just begun.

With the added warmth and comfort of aromatic tobacco, and rich urban décor lining the walls, it’s no surprise that hookah bars like Nomad have started popping up all over Santa Cruz.

“Santa Cruz was definitely not chill with [hookah bars],” said Kyle Kapchuck, 20, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur and owner of Nomad Hookah Lounge. “It took me six months to go through the process: the city, the planning… I fought the laws.”

Kapchuck said that he eventually spoke to Santa Cruz City Mayor Emily Reilly, who told him that smoking was illegal indoors and tried to prevent him from opening the Lounge.

“Fifty-seven applicants in the last 30 years have tried to build them and they have all been turned down,” he said.

But after months of deliberation, Kapchuck’s persistence eventually paid-off.

The Middle Eastern tradition of smoking hookah involves inhaling tobacco, or other substances, through a water-filter pipe called a hookah. The smoke is inhaled through a hose attached at the top. Hookah smoking is most popular because it is very conducive to socializing.

Second-year student Sean Edgerton enjoys hookah because, he said, “It’s a great time for numerous friends to get together, talk, and just enjoy each others’ company,”.

While hookah has taken off in Santa Cruz, it hasn’t been without headache from health officials. Jane Bogart, coordinator of the Student Health Outreach and Promotion Program (SHOP), explained misconceptions about hookah in an e-mail.

“Hookah tends to target the students who are not regular smokers, using the myth that hookah is relatively harmless and non-addictive, but that is not true,” Bogart wrote in an e-mail. “Even after passing through the water, the tobacco smoke produced still contains high levels of toxic compounds, including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and carcinogens,” Bogart said.

According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) advisory, a typical one-hour session of hookah smoking exposes the user to 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette.

Though Edgerton admitted this downside, he insists that there are healthy alternatives to the traditional smoke: “Now tobacco-free hookah is available, which is made up of all-natural herbs and molasses,” he said.

For those 21-and-over, Nomad manager Andrew Beddow went to far as to say that Hookah can help keep people out of harm’s way: “Having the hookah bar has been a really safe alternative. We get drunk people from the bars who come and hookah for a couple hours, sober up, and are [then] safe to drive home,” he said.

But Bogart is not convinced. She added that although some people find hookah relaxing and social, she would like to encourage students to seek out more healthful ways to relax and socialize.