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Difference Between Vaping and Smoking

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Vaping has become almost as visible in the public eye as smoking within the last decade. How exactly does a vape pen differ from a cigarette? Are there any benefits to using an electronic cigarette than the traditional tobacco-based product? Is vaping really a healthier alternative to one of society’s most common vices?

How is vaping different from smoking?

The main difference between vaping and smoking is in their mechanism for releasing nicotine; smoking burns tobacco to release the substance, while vaping heats a tobacco-derived product, flavouring, and other chemicals to air nicotine into the respiratory system. 

What is Smoking?

A man smoking a cigarette

Smoking describes the act of combusting plant material, traditionally tobacco, to inhale fumes that contain a psychoactive substance—in tobacco, this is nicotine. Hashish or marijuana joints are also smoked.

Tobacco is rolled into cigarettes and cigars, or loaded into pipes or bongs, and burned during smoking. The act itself constitutes tasting the smoke itself before exhaling it; any gas that remains inevitably enters the bloodstream.

Inhalation quickly causes short-term mental stimulation and calmness. Prolonged use, however, is linked to chronic anxiety, tension and depression. Due to nicotine being an addictive substance, smoking commonly becomes a habit among users.

Smoking plays host to a large suite of health hazards, with many focused on deleterious effects to the respiratory system. The risk of developing cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and low reproductive health are all associated with smokers.

What is Vaping?

A woman vaping

Vaping is touted as a modern innovation to smoking. Instead of using a cigarette, cigar or pipe, users employ a vaporizer or “vape pen” to heat a liquid solution that contains nicotine, flavouring and other substances to the point of evaporation.

The resultant vapour, which typically gives off a distinct scent based on the type of flavouring used, is inhaled to simulate the sensation of smoking. 

Vape devices used to resemble cigarettes, but have since branched out into other forms, such as tanks, mods, and pods. 

The basic plan of a vape pen includes a cartridge for storing its liquid, an atomizer responsible for heating the solution, a sensor for activation, and a battery. Hence, vaporizers need to be charged before use.

Differences Between Smoking and Vaping

Delivery of Nicotine

In smoking, tobacco is combusted using flame to release its naturally-occurring nicotine contents as a gas, which is then inhaled and absorbed by the bloodstream. The flame can be provided by a matchstick or lighter, implements commonly found with smokers.

Vaporizers use no actual flame. Instead, the atomizer is capable of rapidly heating to 200-250 °C (390-480 °F). The heat quickly evaporates the solution into an aerosol that is inhaled in a similar fashion to smoking. 

Product Types

The usual product purchased for smoking comes in the form of cigars, cigarettes, or pipes.

  • Cigars are bundles of dried tobacco or other plant materials rolled in a dried leaf wrapper. The size and shape, or a vitola of a cigar, spans a usual range of 14-19 cm long and 15-20 mm wide.
  • Cigarettes are smaller and thinner than cigars, and contain proportionately less tobacco product. While commercially-produced versions exist, roll-your owns, which are handmade, are also common.
  • Pipes are seen as more archaic smoking devices, consisting of a small tobacco receptacle attached to a thin stem and its mouthpiece. 

Vaporizers are divided into four generations:

  • Cig-a-likes are the earliest e-cig type and closely resemble actual cigarettes. As entry-level vaporizers, they facilitate the transition from smoking to vaping.
  • Vape pens have a superior battery and heating action compared to cig-a-likes. It is advertised for beginners, and most units limit hits to below 10 seconds for safety.
  • Vape mods are third-generation vaporizers that produce bigger clouds, are better protected against short circuits, and a sub-ohm tank for higher-nicotine hits.
  • Pod mods are currently the latest class of vaporizers, combining the low-wattage sustainability of a cig-a-like with most of the vape mod’s modern features.

Gas Produced

Tobacco smoke is mostly composed of incompletely-combusted carbon particles and a host of toxic chemicals. At least 20% of its contents is water vapour. Hazardous components include:

  • Hydrogen cyanide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Benzene
  • Nicotine (reduced with nicotine filters)
  • Formaldehyde
  • Benzopyrene
  • Toluene

The fumes produced by a vaporizer, in contrast, figure as a more desirable feature in vaping than in smoking. Vape enthusiasts can modify their units to release large clouds for their perceived aesthetic and social value.

Typical components of vape aerosols are:

  • Arsenic
  • Chloroform
  • Formaldehyde
  • Glycerin or propylene glycol
  • E-liquid flavoring
  • Nicotine
  • Heavy metals (e.g. cadmium, chromium, lead, barium)
  • Hydrazine
  • Hydrogen cyanide
  • Phenol
  • Trichloroethylene

Psychoactive Effect

The effect of both smoking and vaping on the mind heavily depends on the type of psychoactive substance used; tobacco (nicotine), THC or other dried fermented plant materials will have different impacts.

In any case, nicotine absorbed by the blood triggers the release of adrenaline, which raises blood pressure, heartbeat rate, and breathing. It also increases dopamine levels, which can cause users to associate heightened pleasure and feelings of reward with smoking or vaping.

In broad strokes, vaping can become an emotion-based coping mechanism. It can contribute to anxiety and mood disorders, depression, constant agitation or suicidal ideation. 

Smoking may improve concentration, lower anxious thoughts, and act as a stimulant, all in the short-term. Withdrawal can be stressful. Long-term users may become irritable, restless, unable to focus or depressed.

Common Ingredients

The e-liquid in vape pens is composed of the following primary ingredients:

  • Propylene glycol, which carries the liquid’s flavor
  • Vegetable glycerine, a sweetener and emulsifier
  • Nicotine
  • Food-grade flavoring
  • Water
  • Aldehydes and heavy metals

Cigars and cigarettes are comparatively simpler in terms of ingredients; to wit, the only significant component is the filler, which is made from bound, dried and fermented tobacco leaves. 

Variety of Flavors

Vape users have many more options when it comes to flavouring compared to smokers.

Hundreds of kinds of flavorings can be infused into an e-liquid, and combined to create several more varieties. Popular flavors range from fruity selections and chocolate to bubblegum, Red Bull or imitation tobacco.

While many smokers prefer the natural flavor of tobacco, artificially-flavoured tobacco products are available in types such as spearmint, citrus, rum, menthol, or cinnamon.

Health Risks

The negative health effects of smoking are well-documented. Inhalation of the aerosols damage the airways and the alveoli of the lungs; as such, smoking diseases are usually focused in the respiratory system. 

Documented effects of smoking to long-term users include:

  • Lung cancer
  • General increased risk of all cancers
  • Stroke
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
    • Emphysema
    • Bronchitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Reduced fertility

Users and supporters of vaping espouse the act as a healthier alternative to smoking. 

One common misconception is that vape aerosols are mostly water vapour. In reality, the clouds produced are made of a fine mist of nicotine, heavy metal particles, and propylene glycol or vegetable glycerine. 

Established risks to vaping are:

  • Acute lung injury
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Asthma
  • Lung cancer
  • Decreased capacity for learning, memory and attention1
  • Bronchitis
  • Sudden infant diseases syndrome


Vaping is more expensive upfront compared to cigarettes.2 Purchasing a device is the highest cost, especially for high-end units such as pods.

Disposable pods or nicotine vaping products (NVPs), as well as prefilled cartridges, are much pricier than a pack of smokes.

For chronic users in the long-term, vaping becomes more affordable, as replacing e-liquid is cheaper compared to buying cigarette packs.


The World Health Organization estimates that a fifth of the world’s current population uses tobacco or a smoking product. One in three men smoke. The majority of men who smoke are in the 40-64 age bracket.

Vaping attracts more of the youth demographic. About a fifth of Americans from the 18-29 age range use a vape product. 

Comparison Chart: Smoking vs Vaping

Delivery of NicotineFlame-based combustionRapid heating via atomizer
Product TypesCigar, cigarette, pipe, bongCig-a-like, vape pen, mod, pod mod
Gas ProducedAerosolized soot, nicotine, carbon monoxide, carcinogensPropylene glycol or glycerine, nicotine, heavy metal particles, carcinogens
Psychoactive EffectStimulant. Anxiety-inducing and mood-altering.
Common IngredientsMainly tobacco (nicotine)Nicotine, flavouring, propylene glycol or glycerine, heavy metals
Variety of FlavorsNatural, spearmint, citrus, menthol, rumArtificial: fruit, chocolate, energy drink, mixed
Health RisksCancer, lung disease, tuberculosis, low fertilityHeavy metal toxicity, cancer, reduced fertility, cognitive decline
PricingCheap but adds up with frequent useVery high upfront cost
DemographicsMajority of users are older males aged 40-64Targeted at the youth ages 18-29

How are smoking and vaping similar?

Despite proponents presenting vapes as a healthier alternative, smoking and vaping remain quite similar.

Both products heat an addictive substance into a fine aerosol mist that is then inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream to produce a relaxing, but stimulating effect on the user.

The substance in most cases is still nicotine. Cannabis, cloves, sage, and opium can also be used as the burning material.

Psychotropic effects are common. Users can become irritable, tense, depressed or emotionally volatile as they develop a nicotine addiction.

Common health effects from persistent smoking or vaping are several lung and heart diseases, including: asthma, acute lung injury, coronary artery disease, emphysema, and bronchitis. Both habits increase the overall risk of cancer and lower fertility.


Are vapes less harmful than smoking?

Vapes are touted as less dangerous than smoking, but are clearly not safe by themselves.

While the long-term effects of vaping are still being studied, preliminary research states that it is better to be a non-smoker than to use a vape. Inhaling firsthand or secondhand vape clouds allows carcinogenic vapors to damage the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

There is even evidence that vapes introduce a new form of health hazard to users in the form of toxicity exposure from the heavy metals in the vaping device. Lead, chromium, aluminum, copper and tin from vape aerosols contribute to respiratory diseases.

How much nicotine is in a vape?

A popular belief is that vapes contain little to no nicotine. This is far from the truth; 99% of vape products tested by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had nicotine.

E-liquid nicotine concentrations vary wildly from 11-36 mg per mL of fluid, with some going as high as 87.2 mg/mL. Concentrations of 24-36 mg/mL are considered high for regular consumers.

Nicotine exposure from a vape doesn’t only come from the amount in the e-liquid; the heating capacity of the vaporizer and frequency of use also influences dosage. 


Smoking is on the decline globally, while the number of people who vape continues to rise—from 68 million in 2020 to 82 million in 2021.

What are the key differences between vaping and smoking? 

Vaping does not burn nicotine; it heats a flavoured liquid into an aerosol mist. The e-liquid in a vape pen contains more ingredients than in a normal cigarette, with heavy metals, propylene glycol, and flavouring in addition to nicotine. 

Vapes also come in more flavors, are pricier upfront, and are heavily aimed at young users. Most users own a second-gen vape pen, but vape pods and fourth-gen pod mods are seeing increasing adoption.

Smoking is mainly the domain of middle-aged men.

Research establishes both products pose serious health risks with frequent use, due to similar carcinogenic, cardiovascular and respiratory effects. Vapes may also induce heavy metal poisoning.


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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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