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Hookah vs. Vaping: What’s the Difference?

  • April 9, 2017 /

Today we’re going to tackle an interesting question: what’s the difference between hookah and vaping?

There’s an obvious gut-response to this—hookah refers to smoking shisha tobacco through a hookah pipe, and vaping refers to inhaling e-liquid through an electronic vape device.

Simple, right?

Well, there’s actually a bit more to it. They’re not the same thing, but—believe it or not—smoking hookah and vaping e-liquid more in common than you might realize.​

So let’s break it down, shall we?

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The differences between hookah and vaping

Let's go ahead and get the big differences out of they way. There should be no big surprises here!​

Hookah uses tobacco, vaping uses e-liquid

During a hookah session, you’re usually smoking a sticky substance known as shisha—tobacco mixed with molasses (or honey) and vegetable glycerin.

Classic shisha flavors are based around fruit—think double apple, guava, mango…so on and so forth. Modern shisha is a bit more diversified, and includes flavors like cola, cappuccino, orange cream…you get the idea.

There are non-tobacco shisha alternatives, like herbal shisha and vapor stones, but they’re not nearly as widely used (or, in my humble opinion, as good) as standard tobacco-based stuff.

Vaping, on the other hand, uses e-liquid, which is made from propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, diluted liquid nicotine, and a flavor concentrate.

Expect for the nicotine, all the ingredients in e-liquid are food-grade.

E-liquid flavors are ridiculously diverse. You can stick to standard fruit stuff, or you can go wild with an assortment of dessert, candy, beverage--even cereal!--flavors.

If you’re a true MVP, you can even buy meat flavored e-liquid (disclaimer: I'm not that brave).

E-liquid is also diverse in the sense that it can be produced in several different specifications—nicotine levels and the amount of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin are all variable.

This means if you’re planning on cutting back your nicotine intake, you can gradually order e-liquid with less of it. If you want bigger clouds, you can order e-liquid with more vegetable glycerin. If you want more of a throat hit, you can order e-liquid with more propylene glycol.

Hookah uses coals for heat, vaping uses electricity

During a hookah session, smoke is produced when shisha tobacco is heated by burning charcoal.

High quality charcoal is usually made from coconut shells, mid-level charcoal is usually made from wood, and cheap quick-lite charcoal is made from who-knows-what and is covered by sketchy lighter fluid.

hookah uses charcoal for heat

Image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

Burning charcoal for the best bowl of shisha is an art. You don’t want it too hot, as that produced too much heat, and severely limits the life-span of the charcoal. You also don’t want it burning too lightly, as the flame may dissipate before it gets to appropriate heating temperature.

Adjusting the level of heat is also usually done with the number of coals you decide to use for your traditional hookah session. If you need more heat, you use more coals. If you need less heat, you use less coals.

Vaping devices, on the other hand, heat up e-liquid electronically through a component known as an atomizer, which receives power from a battery.

Atomizers feature a coil, usually wrapped around organic cotton. The cotton soaks up e-liquid, which turns to vapor once heat is applied.

Heat adjustment in this case is done internally, and is usually measured in wattage or voltage.

Recent vaping devices even feature temperature control, which prohibit the coils from heating up past a certain set threshold.

atomizer coils

Atomizer coils used for the ePuffer E-Hookah Head

There are exceptions to this—unregulated vape devices don’t typically have any internal temperature control of any kind, and the amount of heat used is therefore dependent on the the ohm-resistance of whatever atomizer coil you’re using.

Either way, unless you plan on dripping e-liquid, this is probably something you won’t have to worry about. Most vape devices feature energy control of some kind.

So those are the big differences. But like I mentioned in the introduction of this article…there are actually quite a few similarities between vaping and hookah. I wouldn’t even call them “a stretch,” either. Let’s talk about them now.

The similarities between hookah and vaping

Now for the fun stuff! Hookah and vaping obviously aren't the same thing, but that doesn't mean they're completely different from each other.

Quite the contrary, actually. Read on...you may be surprised!​

Both rely on vaporization

We’ve already gone over the basics of vaping: the atomizer in your vape device heats up e-liquid, the e-liquid vaporizes, you inhale the vapor.

The concept itself is not really that revolutionary, though. Hookah has it beat by, oh, several centuries.

Think about it. When you smoke hookah, you’re generally doing the same thing with— burning charcoal never actually touches shisha: there's a piece of foil in the way. So this heat is applied to shisha via coals, the shisha then vaporizes into smoke.

Both utilize nicotine

E-liquid also contains nicotine, though it’s far more customizable in this format. Most sellers give you several nicotine level options, usually from 0mg/ml all the way to 24mg/ml.

In any case, if you smoke hookah regularly, you’re probably addicted to the nicotine as much as you are to the smooth smoke and flavor.

And if you’ve switched from smoking to vaping, it’s doubtful that you would have sticked with it if it weren’t for the nicotine prevalent in most e-liquid.

Both have a similar ingredient

Both e-liquid and shisha contain vegetable glycerin (VG) as a main ingredient—it’s the stuff that gives hookah smoke and e-cigarette vapor their thick, cloudy consistency.

This isn’t simply happenstance, either. Without VG in shisha, you wouldn’t get those delightful smoke clouds. Same goes for e-liquid. Without VG, you’re inhaling flavored nicotine and propylene glycol—which will give you a ridiculously harsh throat hit and pretty much nothing else.

Long story short: like big clouds? Thank VG.

Pro tip: the more VG and higher the heat level, the bigger the clouds. It’s why you always get thicker hookah smoke when use more coals, and why sub-ohm vaping works best with e-liquid that has a higher VG ratio.

They both require reoccurring purchases

To keep your hookah habit steady, you’re going to need to buy shisha and coals whenever you run out. You’ll also probably need to replace your hose every so often, and unless you take immaculate care of your hookah pipe, you might have to replace the whole thing one day.

In a similar vein, vaping requires that you keep e-liquid and replacement atomizers in stock. If you’re using a vape device with removable batteries, you’ll have to replace those eventually as well. If you use a vape device with a built-in battery, you’ll have to replace the entire mod once the battery stops holding a charge.

So, what’s cheaper? Well, an in-depth analysis of the cost between smoking hookah and vaping deserves its very own post, but we can generalize a little bit for now.

In my case, vaping is quite a bit cheaper. When I smoked traditional hookah heavily, I easily spent over $150 a month on shisha and coals. Now that I vape pretty much exclusively, my vice budget has decreased to around half of that.

Granted, this is anecdotal evidence based around the experience of one person (me). But if you scourge through internet, I think you’ll find similar responses.

Both allow for flavor mixing

Mixing in different flavors of shisha is one the great joys of smoking hookah. Want to give your fruit flavors a tingly kick? Add a little bit of mint shisha! Ever wonder what blueberries and oranges would taste like together? Just mix them up, friend. Curious about coffee and watermelon at the same time? Um…try at your own risk. But you can still try, you know?!

Here’s the deal: you can do the exact same thing with e-liquid. It’s actually quite a bit easier this way, too—you’re dealing with liquid, after all. Just mix up whatever flavor combination you’d like, give it a little shake (or stir, if you’re fancy like that)…and boom! You have your own unique flavor combination.

Both can be done on a hookah pipe

ePuffer E-Hookah Head Review: Sub Ohm Vaping on a Hookaj

Okay, it’s time to reevaluate some stereotype: most places that outline the differences between smoking hookah and vaping bring up the idea that hookah is typically social, whereas vaping is solitary and personal.

While this isn’t untrue, such generalizations don’t tell the whole story. There are plenty of hookah smokers who prefer to smoke alone, and there are plenty of vape enthusiasts who enjoy puffing away with friends.

And since vaping can be done on a hookah pipe with e-hookah heads, the whole “solitary vape” idea doesn’t represent everyone.

In other words, if you’re a hookah smoker who want to try vaping—but don’t want to give up the social aspect of passing a hookah hose around—there’s a brilliant solution for it. It’s how I vape, and I couldn’t be happier.​