On Bliss Street in Hamra, American University of Beirut students huddle in clusters for a quick smoke break between classes.
Amid the borrowing of lighters and exchanging of cigarettes, pipes have recently started popping up, along with requests for a “buzz” from whoever has the equipment.
The health effects of the new trend, called “dokha,” have yet to be fully studied, and the tobacco blend, common elsewhere in the MENA region, is so far only available informally in Lebanon.
“I’ve been smoking dokha for four years,” 22-year-old Mohammad al-Khatib, a university student from Colombia, said. “I got introduced to it here in Lebanon, mostly at parties.”
Having made its way into the country via expats living in or returning from the Gulf, dokha is so called because it means “dizzy” or a “state of dizziness,” describing the sensation of a hit.
The tobacco leaves are dried then ground, and in some cases seasoned with fruit flavors, mint or cloves to conceal its strong alfalfa-like taste.
It is commonly smoked in small doses through a short, narrow wooden pipe, aptly named a “midwakh” – “that which makes you dizzy.”
A “hit” functions in the same way a puff of a cigarette does, but the higher concentration of tobacco causes a brief sensation of lightheadedness, especially for first-timers.
“It’s very different when you take it as a beginner,” Khatib says.
“It’ll make you so dizzy, you might have to lay down. In the beginning I didn’t enjoy it that much, but when I got used to it, it got really good.”
Dokha’s roots can be traced back about 500 years, with the earliest records showing it being smoked in Iran in the year 1400.
It later spread across the Middle East and is now popular in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. One of the biggest retail dokha stores in the UAE, Bin Khumery, has been selling the blend since 1987.
A representative from Bin Khumery told The Daily Star via email that the company used to have a supplier in Lebanon, but the business’s activity in the country has been suspended for the past 52 years, making dokha difficult to obtain.
Therefore, many users in Lebanon buy the blend from expats, who in turn purchase it in bulk from the UAE for resale.
Twenty-one-year-old Marwan, not his real name, is a well-known dokha seller among AUB students, having taken over his brother’s business in 2014, when he arrived in Lebanon from Dubai to start his university degree.
Since inheriting the business from his brother, Marwan has expanded his pool of customers. “Basically, sales kept increasing,” he said.
“It definitely got more popular by the time I got here. Everyone started knowing way more about it, at least in university. Most of the time, when people that already smoke [cigarettes] try it, they end up liking it – it’s pretty hard for them not to.”
Marwan sells not only dokha but all of the accessories that come with it. Many dokha users carry a small pouch, in which they place their small dokha bottle – which holds the tobacco blend – midwakh pipe, a lighter and several pipe cleaners.
But, despite this increasing demand, dokha has yet to be officially licensed for sale in Lebanon by the Regie Libanaise de Tabacs et Tombacs, a public organization controlled by the Finance Ministry.
Jeanette Saade, Regie’s export and import general director, confirmed that the body had denied an application requesting to license dokha.
“Someone did apply to import dokha but his application was refused,” Saade told The Daily Star.
Pierre Hedari, the head of the export and import department who personally refused the request, told The Daily Star that two requests to sell dokha had been turned down.
“Its concentration of nicotine is far too high, and you intake that nicotine a lot faster than you would just a regular cigarette. I don’t want the young Lebanese population to become addicted to this substance.”
Hedari’s request that the applicants provide laboratory analyses on the dokha’s manufacture had not been met, he said.
A source from the Internal Security Force confirmed to The Daily Star that dokha is not listed as an illegal substance and that its use is completely legal in Lebanon.
The biggest stone left unturned with dokha, however, lies in the lack of medical research on its health effects. Exactly how bad this method of tobacco inhalation is for the body remains relatively unexamined. Most users who spoke with The Daily Star assume that dokha must be at least better for the body than cigarettes, because it is typically smoked less frequently. But this claim remains unproven.
“Dokha isn’t as common as hookah and even that isn’t studied that much,” Dr. Hassan Chami, a pulmonary care specialist at AUB Medical Center, said.
“We don’t have the evidence. The perception of the lack of harm, however, is always the problem.
“The trend obviously seems to be for the young [to think that] nothing is going to happen to them now – but they’re developing a risk for later,” he added.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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