Hookah vs. Vape: What’s the Difference?

The market is teeming with various forms of smoking devices, so if you find yourself asking what the difference between all of them is, you are not alone.

E-cigarettes, also known as vaping, have emerged as a better alternative to “smoke” because of the smooth, reliable taste. However, e-cigarettes do not actually produce smoke – but more on that later. 

Hookah is also popular – but for different reasons – including the device used to smoke and the unique form of shisha tobacco. 

So, what are the differences between the two? What is a hookah, and what is vaping? Are they the same? Do they both have nicotine or other chemicals? 

Here is a deep dive into the differences that you’ll find between hookah smoking and vaping.

What Is Hookah?

Hookah is a cultural tradition with roots in Turkish, Egyptian, Persian, Indian, and other Middle Eastern cultures. Hookah, in the form we know it today, made its first global impact through the British East India Company in the sixteenth century. The trade and export of glass in India sent hookahs worldwide, and it became trendy among noblemen in high society. 

Hookah’s cultural purpose centers on conversation and connectedness. One would sit with friends and family and pass the hose around to partake of the flavored smoke. This tenet of conversation and connection remains part of hookah’s legacy.

The typical hookah is just a water pipe. It has a head where you put the moist tobacco, called shisha, a hose and mouthpiece, and a stem connected to a water bowl at the base. 

When using it, you put moist tobacco in the head and heat it lightly with charcoal. The goal is to heat the shisha tobacco by holding the charcoal above the head without burning it. Then, smoke gets sucked through the water bowl and rises through the hose for hookah smoking. 

Hookah smoke contains a different form of tobacco than you will find in other smoking options, including. However, tobacco means it can be addictive. Also called shisha, it contains molasses or honey, vegetable glycerine, flavoring, and nicotine in the tobaccos. 

It is moist with a combination of vegetable glycerin, molasses, and your choice of flavors. It has a reduced combustion risk, making hookah smoke smooth to inhale. It still has nicotine, but the levels are lower than most other smoking options. 

These days, hookah has evolved from its traditional roots, mostly through the global reach and the rise in flavor choices. Pioneers have found new ways to use chemicals to craft flavors for new taste preferences and more variety. You can find hookah lounges throughout the world, or you can invest in your own hookah. It remains a cultural expression even with its reach into countless nationalities and cultures.

What Is Vaping? 

While the e-cigarette may not have a long history steeped in tradition, it has risen to global use in under two decades. E-cigarettes first came onto the scene in 2003 and have evolved into the vape pens we know today. 

Some of these devices have cartridges with nicotine, but it is also possible to get ones that don’t have any nicotine. The ones with nicotine have the potential to be addictive. 

Vaping involves inhaling smoke created through a mechanical process. The e-cigarettes utilize an atomizer, power source, and a tank or cartridge. It creates vapor by heating a liquid in the tank or cartridge, which is how the e-cigarette got the name “vape.” The chemicals heat up to activate the rich flavor of your choice.

What is the Difference Between Vaping and Hookah?

So, how does this compare to vaping? The first and significant difference is that e-cigarettes have no tobacco, even though some cartridges have nicotine and some tobacco leaf. While hookah shisha is not ordinary tobacco, it is still tobacco. So, it retains the combustion of tobacco, which you will not find in a vaping device

Other differences involve burning coals with hookah smoking compared to the electric coils found in e-cigarettes. 

The vessels used for smoking also vary. Hookahs are tall with a water bowl at the base and hose-like mouthpiece to inhale smoke. Vaping pens are small, pen-sized electronic devices with a small tip for inhalation.

Finally, a vaping device has the nickname “vape” for a reason. An e-cigarette produces a vapor – not smoke. Hookah does produce smoke. 

Electricity vs. Coals 

One substantial difference to note is how each method heats up to produce smoke. 

Hookah burns charcoal to heat shisha tobacco. Most of the time, this charcoal comes from coconut shells, but the average charcoal made from wood can also be present. 

Unlike switching on an e-cigarette and activating the heating coils, hookah requires getting charcoal burning just right. You do not want it too hot, or you will burn through the shisha tobacco quickly. But if it is too light, the flames may sputter. You will have to balance the heat level for the best experience. 

Keep in mind that burning anything, including charcoal, produces carbon monoxide. You likely will not produce enough carbon monoxide in a hookah session to cause issues, but you want to be aware of it. It also means you should use hookah in a well-ventilated area so the carbon monoxide can leave and let in fresh air rotate. 

Vape pens use atomizers to heat the e-liquid. These atomizers are battery-operated and involve a coil wrapped cotton. The e-liquid soaks into the cotton, heat gets applied, and the liquid turns to vapor, which the user then inhales. 

Unlike hookah, there is no tricky heat adjustment. Vape pens often have auto-adjust heat settings measured in volts or watts. It prevents over- and under-heating. 


E-cigarettes are slim, portable pens that can easily slide into a pocket and travel anywhere. On the other hand, hookahs are tall, standing designs that are not as portable. Usually, if you don’t own a setup, you’ll need to go to a hookah lounge, where they provide everything for you. 

If you want to try portability and hookah, there are hookah pens. These mimic the unique shisha tobacco flavors. While it will get you the portability of a vaping rig, it will not have quite the strength of a traditional hookah. 

Cultural Differences

Another notable difference is just how long both smoking types became widely known. The first e-cigarette, utilizing a design, came out in 2003. It has recently exploded in popularity and spread around the world. 

The hookah has a much longer history, dating back to the sixteenth century. The first use of hookah began in India with the boom of the glass exportation industry. It started spreading through trade and eventually became the cultural pastime it is today.

Why are Hookah and Vaping Often Confused with Each Other?

With these differences in mind, it might not seem clear why people often confuse one with another. There are a few similarities that could explain the mix-up.

First, using either one, you will experience smooth flavors, so the taste results can be similar. They have some chemicals in common, including vegetable glycerine and sometimes nicotine. 

Both also have pen options, although hookah is much more common in the glass set-up and connected tube design. 

Both hookah smoking and vaping are smooth on the throat. It can also be easy to lump any smoking use that involves nicotine or tobacco as similar – which is another point of possible confusion. 

Besides that, you will find a difference in power source, portability, and history. An e-cigarette contains no tobacco, relying on heated coils and e-liquid. It can contain nicotine, but that isn’t a requirement. The hookah has flavorful shisha tobacco with strong cultural roots. 

Both are widely available worldwide, although you will find vape pens in your local store and may have to visit a hookah lounge if you do not want to buy a set for yourself.  

The Bottom Line

The question most people seek to answer is: which is better, vaping or hookah? It depends on how often you want to use it, what you seek from a hookah session or vaping, and your preferences. 

Since e-cigarettes are small and transportable, this is a better option if you plan to vape frequently or want to have the pen on hand to use. 

Typically, hookah smoking is useful for experimenting and finding the right flavors, with hookah lounges presenting a social opportunity to share with friends.