Bongs and water pipes

Many people believe smoking a bong is a safer option than a joint. This factsheet provides insights into possible harms.

The most popular way to use cannabis is to smoke or inhale the drug. Cannabis products are usually smoked (with or without tobacco) either in the form of a cigarette (often referred to as a ‘joint’) or through a pipe. These devices vary in form, but the most popular have long stems or incorporate a ‘hookah-type’ water filtration system (i.e. water pipe) and are often referred to as a ‘bong’.

The difference between a bong and other smoking devices, such as a pipe, is that the cannabis smoke is passed through or over water or another liquid before being inhaled. These devices, either ‘store-bought’ or homemade, are available in a range of sizes and designs, and were widely available for sale until 2007, when legislation was introduced across Australia to make their display and sale illegal.

Use of bongs in Australia

Australian research into the use of cannabis suggests that bongs continue to be a popular way of using the drug. According to the 2007 National Drug Household Survey (data is not available in the 2010 or 2013 surveys), recent cannabis users (those that had used in the previous 12 months) reported they were more likely to smoke the drug as a joint/reefer/spliff (84.3%), followed by smoking in a bong or pipe (81.7%).

Bongs, however, are the most common method of using cannabis among Australian secondary school students, according to the 2011 ASSAD Survey. Fifty-eight percent of male and 50% of female students, who identified as having used cannabis in the past year, reported this was their usual route of administration. Regular cannabis users were more likely to report using a bong than occasional users, who preferred to smoke a joint.

Origins of the bong or water pipe

Although the use of water in a smoking apparatus has a long tradition, the origin of the water pipe is unclear. There is increasing evidence to suggest that bongs were first used to smoke cannabis in eastern and southern Africa before the introduction of tobacco. Others believe, however, that water pipes originated in China or Persia, and were first used there to smoke tobacco.

The word ‘bong’ is an adaptation of the Thai word baung, which refers to a cylindrical pipe or tube cut from bamboo. One of the earliest recorded uses of the word in the West is in the McFarland Thai-English Dictionary, published in 1944, which describes one of the meanings of ‘bong’ in the Thai language as, “a bamboo water pipe for smoking kancha, tree, hashish, or the hemp-plant.”

Why do some users prefer a bong and how is it used?

Smoking continues to be the preferred method of use for cannabis users, mainly due to the faster onset of action and easier titration of dose when compared with eating. As with the hookah, the introduction of the water to the smoking process is regarded by many cannabis users as the bong’s major advantage. When a water pipe is used, cannabis smoke is cooled by travelling over the water and in doing so, reduces its temperature and harshness on the throat and lungs, thus minimising the burning feeling to the smoker’s throat.

A bong used to smoke cannabis is similar to a traditional hookah in both construction and function, except it is often smaller and more portable. A hole in the stem of the instrument, often referred to as the ‘carburator’, ‘shotty’ or simply ‘hole’, is usually kept covered during the smoking process, then opened to allow the smoke to be drawn into the respiratory system in an attempt to maximise the impact.

Respiratory harms associated with cannabis and the use of bongs

One of the major harms linked to cannabis use is the potential respiratory damage caused by smoking. Considering the popularity of smoking cannabis via a water pipe, it is surprising how little research has been conducted on this route of administration and the potential respiratory harms associated with the practice.

Many believe that smoking cannabis is relatively free from harm, particularly when compared to tobacco. Regardless of how it is smoked, however, four distinct harms to respiratory health have been identified as a result of cannabis smoking:

  • cannabis and tobacco smoke include a similar range of pro-inflammatory and carcinogenic substances
  • the damaging effects of inhaling cannabis smoke are similar to those of tobacco smoke
  • acute exposure to cannabis smoke results in small reductions in lung function accompanied by respiratory symptoms such as a cough and wheeze
  • with longer-term exposure, tobacco and cannabis smoking have additive effects of lung function and respiratory symptoms

When it comes to the use of the water pipe specifically, some users believe that the bong reduces exposure to potentially toxic materials, such as tar, due to the smoke being ‘filtered’ by the water. This has been disproved, with a number of studies finding that bongs do not in fact provide this protection.

The most important of these was a study partly sponsored by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) that tested smoke from seven different sources – joints, bongs and vaporizers. Three water pipes were used in the study – a standard bong, a small portable device with a folding pipestream and a battery-operated model with a motorised paddle that mixed the smoke with the water. The study looked at two components of the smoke – tars (waste by-products of burning) and cannabinoids (compounds distinctive to cannabis including THC, as well as CBN and CBD) and aimed to determine the efficacy of various smoking devices at reducing the concentration of tars relative to cannabinoids.

The results showed that contrary to popular belief, using a bong did not appear to protect smokers from the harmful tars in cannabis smoke. In fact, the water pipes filtered out more psychoactive THC than they did tars, which meant that users had to smoke more to reach their desired effect.

Of the three bongs studied, the pipe that mixed the smoke with water scored by far the worst. This led the authors to conclude that water filtration is actually counterproductive because water appears to absorb THC more readily than tars.

Conclusions

Bong use continues to be popular among cannabis smokers, particularly younger users. This is often due to the belief that the water in the device ‘filters’ out toxic materials contained in the smoke. Although not extensively studied, the evidence is clear that using a bong is one of the most harmful ways to use cannabis.

Updated August 2015