DAVIE, Fla. -- There's a calm vibe at the Morjan Cafe and Hookah Bar, sort of a cross between a Starbucks and a '60s psychedelic party.
The crowd of twentysomethings relax on comfy stuffed seats at the dimly lit Davie establishment, sucking on plastic tubes connected to hookahs, which look like large stylish bongs. The devices are actually water pipes filled with flavored tobacco. The sweet scents of mint, strawberry, peanut butter and other flavors fill the lounge.
Hookah lounges have become hip additions to South Florida's nightlife in recent years. But their popularity has also raised concerns that they may provide a trendy way to get young people hooked on tobacco.
A Florida International University researcher last week released a study asserting that hookah was just as dangerous and addictive as cigarettes. A separate study of Florida high school students found that 18.2 percent smoked tobacco through a hookah in 2011, up from 15.8 percent in 2009.
"This is incredibly disturbing from a public health perspective," said Dr. Wasim Maziak, who heads FIU's epidemiology department. "Even with the trendiness aspect, we are shocked by the spread of water pipe. It truly is an epidemic."
He said studies conducted by his lab show the level of carbon monoxide inhaled during an hour-long hookah session can be equivalent to smoking more than 100 cigarettes. Maziac said many people inaccurately believe hookah is less dangerous than cigarettes, that the water in the pipes filter out harmful chemicals.
"I've always told people it's not healthy," said Ryan Sentz, owner of the Funky Buddha Lounge, a brew pub in Boca Raton that also offers hookah. "You're still breathing in smoke, and anyone is naive if they believe that when it goes through water, it's not bad for you."
But patrons say hookah, which traces its roots back to India and the Middle East, offers a means to relax and socialize.
Dozens of hookah lounges have popped up in South Florida during the past few years.
"People are always looking for a new trend, and this time it's hookah," said Kevin Revil, who works at Exotic Bites, a restaurant and hookah lounge in Hollywood. "It's like smoking a cigar with fruity flavors. There's no taste of tobacco. All you taste is the flavor."
The growth of hookah has surprised Alex Awad, who owns Leila, a Middle Eastern restaurant in West Palm Beach, which offers customers hookah after their meals.
A native of Syria, Awad has long enjoyed hookah with his wife and started offering it to customers when he opened nine years ago. At that time, it was the only place to find the tobacco in the nearby area, he said. Now, downtown West Palm Beach has four Hookah establishments, he said.
"A lot of people have been asking me about it, because they keep seeing it all over the country," he said. "I don't know why it's become so popular."
Morjan Cafe attracts students from nearby Broward College and Nova Southeastern University, but also has regulars who travel from as far as Miami.
"Hookah brings people together. We're like one big family here," said Daniel Marcum, 20 of Davie, who also used hookah to help him stop smoking cigarettes.
Hayleymarie Klatt, 20, of Davie, doesn't smoke cigarettes but she enjoys hookah at the cafe about three times a week.
"It has a calming effect," she said. "Cigarettes are too harsh, but hookah is smoother, and I like the flavors."
Klatt said she doesn't find hookah addictive and has gone three months without it.
"I may be taking some risks to my health," she said. "But that's my personal preference, and I'm OK with that."
Meanwhile, Maziac is urging theMiami-Dade CountyCommission to include hookah in a proposed law that would ban the sales of candy flavored tobacco. He is also conducting research to see if there's evidence that hookah serves as a gateway for other tobacco products.
"Hookah is not that accessible. You can't take it with you, so when you get hooked on nicotine and need a dose, they may start smoking cigarettes," he said.