Hookah - the smoking of flavored tobacco through a device holding chambers of water - ranks among the oldest forms of the habit, first appearing in Persia around the mid-to-late 16th century. Water pipes have been used to inhale various types of dried plant smoke ever since, but hookah culture remained mostly niche, centered in the habit's historical eastern-hemisphere hot-spots.
Until now. The last 20 years has seen a tremendous upswing in hookah usage in the western hemisphere, especially among young adults in urban areas.Today, it's big business. Hookah wholesalers offer everything from the devices themselves to different kinds of charcoals and even e-hookahs, which are gaining momentum on the market.

Laws and Health Concerns
The tobacco industry is, to this day, dominated by one product: cigarettes. Nearly 300 billion cigarettes were bought in the United States in 2011 alone. However, cigarette smoking prevalence is on the decline. Starting in the mid-20th century, medical awareness about the dangers of prolonged tobacco use led to legislative crackdowns on its consumption across the globe. Tobacco companies were required by law to foot the bill for an ongoing public relations campaign regarding cigarette dangers.

Generations of people have now grown up associating cigarettes with disease and death. But we continue to also associate tobacco use with socializing and glamour. Hookah has come to be seen as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes while maintaining the latter's social elements. While many will argue that inhaled tobacco smoke is never better or worse in any situation, the ability to become addicted to hookah is inherently harder, proponents will claim, due to the restrictions of the device itself and the nature of hookah being a thing for groups on occasion, not something one can frequently do on their own, like smoking cigarettes or cigars.

But this still doesn't answer the question of why this niche of middle-eastern culture has made its way onto the corners of Midwestern cities. How come?

Trends and Globalization
We won't point any fingers, but a certain large group of people out there (rhymes with "tipsters") is notorious for two things: irony and spending money to exhibit it. Hookah covers these dual desires with one activity. Experiencing an activity transplanted from another time and place is a very cool thing to do, no matter what "subculture" you belong to. So when these "tipsters" share hookah with friends and family, these regular folks come to like it too.

And like most activities that become very popular very quick, hookah typically involves one person introducing it to several others at once. The rate of hookah experience, enjoyment, and endorsement among an urban population becomes exponential over time.

None of this is possible without one key component: import. Hookah wasn't faxed to western countries, it arrived into them with immigrants from the lands of its origin. These populations created a demand for hookah bars. Major cities - the destination for the majority of people immigrating to a western nation - were the first places to have hookah bars due not to a prevalence of trendsetters but to newly arrived settlers. Hookah in many ways is a testament to the fluidity of culture across continents in modern times.

Hookah has been around for centuries. But besides the Wonderland Caterpillar and Jabba the Hutt, most of us born and bred in Western countries have only been exposed to it recently. The reasoning had as much to do with changes in health perception and tolerated tobacco use as it did with hipness and social science. The rise of hookah smoke may appear a little hazy at first, but look closer and one sees clear reasons why the habit has hit mainstream.