• 5/31/2005
  • Temple Terrace, FL
  • Stephanie Hayes
  • The Kansas City Star (www.kansascity.com)

Richard Preston’s hookah pipe arrives at his table at the Meridian Hookah Lounge, and he takes a drag.

The pipe, a centuriesold worldly tradition, is now on the lips of a 20-year-old heavy-metal enthusiast. Dressed in black, Preston sucks lemon-lime flavored tobacco smoke from a twisting tube and leans back, awash in the perfumed haze. He is mellow but talkative.

“I worked my tail off today,” says the Papa John’s employee and University of Tampa student. “I come up here and it’s like, “What’s work?”‘

He shares the sofa with Jennifer Goubeaud, a 20-year-old University of South Florida psychology major. She smiles and sums up why college students are racing to try the hookah’s sweet-tasting tobacco.

“It’s something good and legal to smoke,” she says.

The hookah, also known as the hubble-bubble or narghile, consists of a bowl connected to a vase of water with a long tube and mouthpiece. Shisha, a sticky, wet cocktail of tobacco, molasses and fruit, sits inside the bowl with a layer of foil and a hot coal on top. The smoke cools by passing through water.

Between 200 and 300 hookah bars have opened in the country in the past five years, according to Smokeshop Magazine .

Marc Karimi could be mistaken for a customer at Meridian. He has young skin, dark eyes and clean-cut hair. The 21-year-old nestles into a group of college students on a circular sofa.

Karimi, a USF graduate, owns Meridian. The lounge’s red walls surround couches, round tables and a small stage where singer Colt Clark strums tunes on an acoustic guitar. The lighting is low, the vibe is clubby and the art is funky.

Late on a Wednesday night, Karimi watches his business crawl with customers, mostly college students. It’s the last thing he imagined when he bought a hookah pipe for decoration, “just a thing to have in my house.”

“One of my buddies came over and we just decided to actually smoke it,” Karimi says. “We smoked it and we were like, “Wow, you get a little buzz from it.”‘

The pipe became a hit at Karimi’s Sigma Chi fraternity parties, and Karimi took notice. He read up on hookah bars and wrote a 120-page business plan as a thesis for an honors program. After graduating in 2004 with a finance degree, he shopped for locations around the college.

Karimi, who works as a business analyst for an investment company during the day, found a home for Meridian and opened the bar last August.

Customers are 18 and older and pay a $7 to $10 cover charge for unlimited smoking. Flavors range from strawberry, apple and mango to more creative concoctions like “purple gorilla” and “sweet love.” The full menu is listed on the lounge Web site, usfhookah.com.

Coffee and soft drinks are available, but alcohol and food are not. On different nights, entertainment includes a belly dancer, a masseuse, a DJ, live music and an open mike.

What may smell like roses to hookah fans concerns others.

“Because (the hookah) is shared in a very social setting, people tend to smoke frequently and for a longer duration,” says Samira Asma, associate director for global tobacco programs at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hookah smoking can cause mouth cancer, and because of swallowed juices, stomach and esophagus cancer, says Asma. Studies from the Middle East and India show that lung disease, low-birth weight newborns and high carbon dioxide blood levels are also prevalent.

Asma says that most young people are oblivious to the risks, based on a 2002 CDC focus group study.