Haptic Habit

hapticIt’s the hand-to-mouth habit!

This is the simple formula often used to explain the psychological part of the multifactorial tobacco dependence and why vaping works where NRTs often fail. There sure is a lot of truth to it. But its simplicity also carries the seeds for erroneous expectations that can create a host of problems. People who haven’t vaped before often take this statement at face value.

Smokers at first try to vape just like they are used to smoking a cigarette. This inevitably turns out to be unsatisfactory. Some dismiss vaping immediately and return to smoking. Others are determined to give it a chance and adapt their behavior to compensate for the differences. Most people don’t pay attention to all the little adjustments they make. So they forget those small struggles and adopt the hand-to-mouth formula as an easy explanation.

Since surveys now show that juvenile experimentation predominantly happens without nicotine the proponents of the Gateway myth have changed their “reasoning” from dreaded nicotine addiction to “learning of the smoking habit.”

In this post I try to point out the subtle differences in various aspects of smoking and vaping behavior.



Many smokers hold their cigarettes between index finger and middle finger. This is still possible with 1st generation cig-alikes. But it’s not very practical with more modern devices where you usually press a button to activate. You can hold 2nd gen pen style vapes this way, but have to change your grip to press the button. Too cumbersome. And the better devices often are too big, too heavy, and inconveniently shaped to be held this way.


Smokers often hold the cigarette with their lips in the corner of the mouth to have their hands free while continuing to smoke. Even the flimsiest cig-alikes are too heavy for that. You have to use your teeth instead. Like a pipe smoker. Some of the pens are light enough to be held this way too, but it’s useless, since you need a hand to press the button for vaping.


As I pointed out in Specious Similarities there are subtle but important differences in the way you draw on a cigarette and vaping. At first a smokers automatically tries to vape like he’s used to smoke. If a smoker has the expectation that the experience is just the same as smoking and he isn’t interested enough in vaping to try to adapt, this initial irritation may be the moment when he decides: “Doesn’t work for me.”


When a smoker wants more and hotter smoke he is used to just draw harder. If he automatically tries that with vaping, he get’s a negative response: The vapor gets cooler and more diluted with ambient air. To get the desired effect he needs to draw slower but longer.


The vapor feels similar enough to smoke to satisfy some of the expectations here, but different enough to be irritating. Vapor is much smoother than smoke. And of course the physical and chemical composition is totally different. At first this paradoxically provokes coughing. Just like the first few cigarettes had. A bit of determination is necessary to overcome this irritation.

Buzz Lighthead

Some smokers especially enjoy the slightly lightheaded feeling after inhaling. It is caused by oxygen deprivation of the brain. Some people like this so much, that they make it a part of other enjoyable recreational activities. With smoking this is mostly caused by the carbon monoxide (CO) that blocks the oxygen transport mechanisms of the blood. CO is created during the combustion. Vaping doesn’t. No CO, no Buzz Lighthead.


Smokers develop individual inhalation techniques that provide the most satisfaction for them. Like first filling the mouth with some smoke and then inhaling that into the lung or puffing (just filling the mouth and blowing it out again without inhaling). Or directly inhaling into the lung (breathing in through the cigarette). Even exhaling through mouth or nose makes a significant difference.

With vaping this often doesn’t provide the individual optimum experience. So a smoker will have to experiment and develop a completely new technique that works best for him.

E.g. I mostly used to inhale cigarette smoke directly into the lung. Exhaling usually through the mouth. Only occasionally through the nose. Without conscious effort I have adopted a totally different technique for vaping: I first fill my mouth with vapor (about once or twice) and expel it through the nose without inhaling (to savor the flavor). Then I continue to fill my mouth a last time and inhale it. Mostly exhaling through the mouth.


If the expectation is to get exactly the same taste as smoke, a disappointment is inevitable. Vapor can’t taste like smoke. A major part of the taste of smoke is created by the heavy, often solid particles of the smoke itself. A lot of them are more or less toxic. It’s a rather complex mixture. None of them are in the vapor.

The taste of nicotine itself is a rather minor component. Like a hint of black pepper.

Many liquid producers try to mimic the taste and call that flavor “Tobacco”. A few come close, but mostly these “tobacco” flavors taste more or less similar to how the unburned fresh tobacco smells.

Once a smoker has accepted the fact that there is no way to recreate the exact taste he expected from smoking, he often starts exploring the plethora of available Fancy Flavors that never were associated with smoking.


A single cigarette is a discrete unit. It takes a pretty constant amount of time to smoke it. When waiting for some event (bus, train, taxi, end of the break) a smoker always considers whether there is time enough to smoke one. Having to put out a less than half smoked cigarette is tinged with some regret for the waste and missing fulfilment. Smokitus interruptus. Impatience and Dissatisfaction. Often, when a smokers knows that the time is too short to smoke as leisurely as he would prefer, he smokes faster and harder to avoid wasting it. This is less enjoyable than it could be and thus also dissatisfying. Sometimes a smoker would enjoy just a puff or two, but keeps on smoking the cigarette to the end in order not to waste it.

Interruptions are also not welcome. You can’t just put the cigarette aside for a few minutes and finish it later. It will waste itself in the ashtray in the meantime. A smoker then often is a bit frustrated and lights a new one.

Putting out the cigarette is a definite closure to the act of smoking. It’s finished and now you do something else.

Vaping is totally different. The discrete unit is a singe puff. There is no closure to the act of vaping. It breaks this behavioral structure. At first most smokers try to emulate it, but there is no incentive to keep it.

It becomes much more casual than smoking. A vaper doesn’t fuzz about whether there will be enough time for anther puff. When a vaper gets interrupted it’s no big deal. He knows and feels that he can resume vaping later. Nothing wasted, no regrets. At most a slight yearning for the pleasure vaping can provide. Like for a relaxing and invigorating cup of coffee or tea.

The absence of a closure is occasionally used by some “experts” to spout abstract concerns that “the vaper might accidently overdose on nicotine.” It’s a rather daft argument and totally dissociated from reality and real human beings. We vape for pleasure. Including, but not limited to, the pleasurable effects of nicotine. With vaping there can be too much of a good thing. When the pleasure vanes, the intervals between puffs get longer. Or we simply stop vaping for a while. Long before the first symptoms of a nicotine overdose (dizziness, cold sweat, palpitations – pretty similar to an OD of caffeine) would manifest, the pleasure of vaping is gone and would turn to displeasure. But that rarely happens. Only if you consciously and deliberately continue to vape. Usually you just don’t.

Just imaging you like caffeine. You have a fantastic coffee machine that gives you an unlimited stream of coffee with the perfect temperature to drink immediately. And it can produce all sorts of coffee, even decaf. But you don’t have a cup to measure how much you drink. Instead you can sip directly from the machine ad lib. You just love your coffee machine.

Now some DHMO expert appears and utters his concern, that you might overdose on caffeine, since you don’t have any control over how much you guzzle, because of the limitless supply. And that this danger is especially great for inexperienced adolescents who are tempted to try it, because of all the fancy flavors that were made just to lure children into caffeine addiction.

How would you react?

Care and feeding

With smoking cigarettes there isn’t much you may or must do. Care for your supplies, optionally roll your own, check lighter/matches, clean up ash, dispose of the butts, make sure not to burn something with the ember. With a pipe you have some more maintenance rituals and paraphernalia.

With vaping the basics are more similar to pipe than cigarette smoking, but different. Your immediate supplies are a spare battery (lighter) and liquid (tobacco). The device (pipe) needs occasional maintenance of the heating unit. This last part can be as easy as changing a light bulb, but it also offers an opportunity for enthusiasts to find a new tinkering hobby hunting the perfect experience. (coil design, wicking material and design, …)

Social aspects

“Do you have a light?” or “Could you spare a cigarette? I forgot mine in the car.” used to be popular conversation openers. Now that smoking and smokers are increasingly stigmatised and ostracised, and the prohibition epidemic exterminates occasions for smokers to socialise in comfort, these lines keep losing their social importance.

With vaping there is nothing equivalent. You can’t just transfer some battery charge. And asking for filling the tank would be like asking for a whole pack of cigarettes. But there are many other topics vapers might talk about. Just no convenient opening line.


While vaping looks deceptively similar, a smoker has to change his behavior quite a lot to compensate for the many subtle but significant differences.

The same would be true for anybody who has only learned to vape and now tries smoking. It’s not as easy as the simplistic assumption of “learned smoking behavior” suggests.



Brian L. Carter, PhD at GFN16
The power of non-nicotine factors in the habitual use of nicotine products

See also:

Prof. Bernd Mayer: How to switch from tobacco to electronic cigarettes?


Posted in Cessation, Dependency, Details, Nicotine, Psychology, Vaping
11 comments on “Haptic Habit
  1. Liam Bryan says:

    Excellent post as ever – there is however one reliable conversation opener: “What you vaping?” 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. […] But this assumption already is flawed. What they are presumably learning is vaping behavior. And while both have some superficial similarities, there are many subtle differences, that require a host of adaptations in the behavior when switching. -> Haptic Habit […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Zi says:

    Amazing!! thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Do it right or don’t do it at all. I find that the puff has to be just as similar to a cigarette as possible or its not going to work. I would greatly appreciate it if you would follow me or check out my blog on vaping. Either way thank you for your inspirational writings on non-smoking. -bel

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This is my story and demonstrates the truth in what you say in your comment and also how an anecdote fits in with the latest thinking on cigarette addiction. I hope Norbert does not mind me pushing my own material here, but it is just a tad on the long side to explain.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course, I don’t mind!

      It is important to shine lights from many different angles at this complex phenomenon to begin to really understand it in all of its variations. There is no simple formula to explain it all. Neither the nicotine nor the habit can be singled out. They are just two facets of many. Depending on your point of view some may shine especially bright, but the others are still there and a change in the lighting can let another one outshine the others.

      That is the main purpose of this blog: To provide impulses to step back from well trodden paths and take a fresh look from other perspectives.


  6. Para Doxis says:

    Excellent read. Thank you. I agree with an earlier comment about conversation openers as a vaper – “what do you vape?” and “what e-juice do you use” are what I would use if I saw another person vaping. I’d be genuinely interested. Nerdy like that, me. Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow Norbert Zillatron on WordPress.com
You Don’t Know Nicotine

A documentation in the making. About common misconceptions that have been around for so long that they are considered "common knowledge" even among scientists. But what are real scientific facts and what are just myths?

GFN–Global Forum on Nicotine

Annual event in Warsaw. Where scientists, policymakers, and consumers meet other people interested in the topic.

Member of IG-ED

German consumers organisation.

%d bloggers like this: