A couple of  years ago, I was walking down to a bookstore in West Hollywood when I noticed a group of young men at Pi on Sunset smoking a rather large, exotic looking pipe. All too quickly, I learned that it was a hookah, a water pipe used for tobacco.

It seems hookah is all the rage these days with the young and experimental.  

More than 20 percent of high school seniors have tried it, according to a national study.

“Students of higher socioeconomic status seem to be more likely to try it,” Joseph Palamar, a New York University professor who analyzed the data from the study, said in an interview with LifeZette.

College students are apparently partaking at an even faster pace.

“The problem is people perceive it as safe, but hookah is not filtered,” Palamar said.

It is nicotine, after all, and as such it poses health hazards such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and some cancers.

After a major education campaign over the last couple of decades, cigarette smoking is down among teens. But water pipes and e-cigarettes (vaporizers) seem to be picking up the slack. Both offer a variety of flavors such as grape, bubble gum and apple to make the smoking experience more palatable.  

Hookah hails from the Middle East. During the past decade, hookahs have become a hot import. Trendy lounges complete with sophisticated water pipes have popped up in major cities. Friends gather to socialize and smoke from the same pipe.

Lotus Hookah Lounge near the University of Southern California is a hot spot for college students and 30-somethings. Bruce Kafil opened the lounge after graduating from USC law school.

“I started smoking young and decided to open a hookah lounge,” said 29-year-old Kafil, whose mother runs the day-to-day operations. “I still smoke on occasion, but decided to stop recently. It’s not as addictive as cigarette smoking because it is something you do more in a group.”

Most lounges open in the afternoon and operate well into the evening. Customers pay between $15 to $30 for a bowl that lasts about 45 minutes. But some people have less elaborate pipes set up in their homes.

One freshman from California State University, Northridge, described how he first tried a hookah at a Los Angeles party during high school.

“It was sort of fun, and people do tricks like blow rings with the flavored smoke,” he said.

But the 19-year-old economics major said it wasn’t something he did often because the big pipes aren’t really portable.

“Most of the kids I knew were addicted to nicotine in general. They smoked cigarettes and vapes, and a hookah was just another way to do it.”

He said he only smoked that way a handful of times, but his mother still worries about these alternative ways to get nicotine. She said the added flavors make this kind of smoking seem fun, harmless and easy to hide, since it doesn’t have the classic smell of cigarettes.

The Santa Monica mother of two says it paints an innocent picture of a harmful activity.

“Hookah gets kids off video screens and out socializing,” the business executive said with a sigh. “But it’s sad because they’re smoking.”

More from Lifezette.com:

Having a Daughter Changed Me: A mom wishes to spare her little girl some very bad habits

Let Him Eat Cake: Family love can be better than veggies, now and then

Help! My Son Isn’t Athletic

Time to Call a Tutor? How to help our kids through the roughest patches