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Hookah vs. Vape: What's the Difference?

December 20, 2023

Vaping and hookah smoking are both popular alternatives to traditional tobacco consumption, but what sets them apart? Between the way the material is heated and inhaled and the cultural differences between the two, a lot distinguishes vapes from shisha tobacco.

Below, learn more about hookah vs. vaping, the primary differences between the two, certain similarities you may notice, and answers to your most frequently asked questions.

What Is Hookah?

Hookah, also known as shisha or waterpipe, is a traditional method of smoking flavoured tobacco. It has roots in India, Turkey, Persia, Egypt, and other areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of Asia.

Hookah made its way to the Western world courtesy of the British East India Company back in the 16th century, when India exported glass hookahs worldwide, and noblemen in high society began to take to the hookah habit.

The cultural purpose of hookah began centred around connection and conversation as participants would sit around, passing the hose to inhale the various flavoured smoke. In recent years, hookah has gained popularity worldwide and has remained a popular social activity. Hookah lounges are popular in cities around the world - a connecting social activity.

A hookah is a water pipe with a head, where moist tobacco is kept, a mouthpiece, and a hose connecting the two. Then, a glass stem attaches to a water bowl at the device's base. By gently heating the moist shisha with charcoal, the heated tobacco produces smoke that then gets sucked in through the water bowl and into the hose to be inhaled.

Because the water helps cool the smoke, it has a lower risk of combustion and feels smoother to inhale. Nicotine levels in shisha are higher than other smoking options, however, with one single water pipe session exposing users to up to 1.7 times the nicotine found in a single cigarette.

What Is Shisha Tobacco?

The tobacco used in hookah is unlike the tobacco found in cigarettes or other smoking options, as it's flavoured and is not dry. Shisha also contains honey or molasses, fruit or herb flavourings, nicotine, and glycerine to keep it moist. Any kind of tobacco can be addictive, including hookah tobacco.

The flavours in shisha also come with their own set of health issues. Because the flavours often taste sweet and pleasant, it has promoted the widespread use of hookah. It's often perceived as less harmful than cigarettes, more socially accepted, and preferred due to its "sweet" flavoured smell of the smoke.

What Is Vaping?

Vaping is an alternative to smoking tobacco that has become popular recently. Unlike hookah, it's only come about in modern times, around 2003. Since they first came onto the scene, they have now evolved into a variety of vape devices seen around the world today.

Different than traditional cigarettes, vape devices utilize electronic heating systems instead of fire or charcoal. This produces vapour instead of smoke. All vape devices use a heating element powered by a battery to turn the e-liquid into vapour. The device then has an airflow system that allows for the inhalation and exhalation of this vapour.

E-liquids are often flavoured with different food-grade chemicals, which can be one similarity to shisha tobacco. However, unlike hookahs, where the flavour is found in the tobacco itself, vape devices have a vast array of flavours to choose from. The base liquid for vaping is propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine.

It's also possible to find vape devices that don't use nicotine. However, the vast majority of them do. Any vape with nicotine has the potential to be addictive, just like any other form of tobacco or nicotine products.

Vapes use a mechanical process to create heat and produce vapour. The liquid in a tank or cartridge uses an atomizer to get heated and create vapour, which the person using the device inhales. As the vapour is heated up and inhaled, the flavourings of the liquid become noticeable.

What Are the Key Differences Between Hookah and Vaping?

Hookah and vaping differ on many different points, including how the material is heated, how the vapour is consumed, their level of portability, nicotine content, and cultural differences.

Learn more about what distinguishes one from another to keep the two activities straight.

Heating Method

The most apparent difference between vaping and hookah is how the materials are heated. Hookah uses charcoal, while vapes use a battery-powered heating element.

Charcoal heats shisha tobacco indirectly, while vape devices heat an e-liquid directly using electricity. The charcoal used in hookah mostly comes from coconut shells, but sometimes they may use charcoal from wood. Since fire is involved in lighting the charcoal for hookahs, there's some risk that comes with hookah smoking. For this reason, it's wise to use hookah in a well-ventilated area to allow fresh air to rotate in.

There's also the expertise required to get the charcoal burning just right to avoid burning the shisha tobacco too quickly. You want it not to be too hot but also not too cold. Finding the perfect heat balance makes hookah a more enjoyable experience.

Conversely, no fire is necessary for vaping. The heating atomizer is activated either when a button is pressed or when the vape device user begins pulling vapour from the device with their mouth. There's no need to adjust the heat like with hookahs, as most use auto-adjusting heat settings to optimize heat levels.

Another difference is that hookah quickly cools the vapour after heating it using the water in the pipe, so it feels smoother on the throat when inhaled. Vaping, however, does not have an element in the vape devices to cool the vapour before it gets inhaled, so vapour from vape devices can sometimes be much hotter.

Inhalation Methods

Another critical difference between the two activities is how the smoke or vapour is inhaled. As mentioned earlier, a typical hookah involves passing around a hose with one person inhaling at once.

Vaping, on the other hand, can be more of an individual experience depending on the device used. Most vape devices can be shared among multiple people, while others are meant to be used and inhaled individually.

Once the coals are burning, the hookah smoke can be inhaled until the coals burn out. In contrast, the vape device does not need to wait for any particular event to begin using and inhaling from the device.

Method of Consumption

With hookah, the smoke is consumed by pulling it through a water basin at the base of the pipe. This works to filter and cool down the smoke before inhalation.

Vaping, however, doesn't have any additional components or equipment necessary for consumption besides the vape device itself. The vapour produced in vape devices is inhaled directly from the mouthpiece without additional filtration or cooling.

Portability and Convenience

Hookah is typically seen as more of a social activity, often used in groups at hookah lounges or parties. They are large and not as easy to transport as vape devices and require more set-up time than vapes, which are more compact and can be carried around and used as a more convenient option for on-the-go.

Cultural Differences

Hookah is deeply rooted in traditional Middle Eastern and Indian cultures, where it has been used for centuries to socialize with friends and family. Vaping, on the other hand, has seen a surge in popularity among Western countries and is not tied to any specific cultural practices. It only came about in the past twenty years, making a newer option for nicotine use.

Nicotine Content

One of the most significant differences between hookah and vaping is their nicotine content. Hookah tobacco usually contains high levels of nicotine, which can be harmful to health when inhaled in large quantities. One study on waterpipe tobacco found that flavoured shisha tobacco has a high nicotine content, about the equivalent of 6.5 regular cigarettes.

In contrast, vape devices that use e-liquids often have varying levels of nicotine content and can even be entirely nicotine-free, giving vape users more control over their nicotine content.

Are There Any Similarities Between Hookah and Vaping?

While our differences clarify these two activities, there are also a few similarities that tie vaping and hookah together.


Both hookah and vaping involve inhaling substances, and since both contain nicotine, both have the potential to become addictive and harm health.

Flavour Variety

Both offer a wide range of flavours, from fruity to dessert-inspired and more. With hookah, the flavour comes from the shisha tobacco itself, while with vaping, e-liquids are available in various flavours.

Social Experience

Though hookah is typically thought of as a group activity and vaping is seen as more of an individual activity, both activities are often enjoyed in social settings.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Hookah Pen and a Vape the Same Thing?

No, hookah pens are a sub-genre of hookah devices that look and work similarly to vape devices but are not the same. Many hookah pens claim to be nicotine-free, and studies have found that they can still irritate the airways.

Does Hookah Burn or Vaporize?

Hookah involves burning tobacco called shisha by carefully heating coals to create vapour that travels up the water pipe and is then cooled by water before moving through the tube to be inhaled. Vapes, on the other hand, vaporize e-liquid without burning it.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the distinctions between hookah and vaping is crucial to helping you make an informed choice. If you are more concerned about creating a social connection, hookah can be a conduit of collaboration and togetherness. However, if you're looking for a modern, convenient, and smoke-free alternative, explore RELX's range of vape.

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