Demystifying the Bong, One Myth at a Time
Bongs, which you may also know by slang terms like bubbler, binger, or billy, are water pipes used to smoke cannabis.
They’ve been around for centuries. The word bong is said to have come from the Thai word “baung” for a bamboo tube used for smoking weed.
Today’s bongs look a lot more complicated than a simple bamboo tube, but they all come down to the same basic process.
Read on to learn more about how bongs work and why, contrary to lore, they aren’t actually any better for your lungs than other smoking methods.
Bongs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very basic with just a bowl and chamber. Others are colorful, mouth-blown works of art.
At the end of the day, they all do basically the same thing: filter and cool the smoke that comes from the burning marijuana.
Bongs generally feature a small bowl that holds dried weed. When you light the weed it combusts. Meanwhile, as you inhale, the water in the bottom of the bong bubbles (or percolates, if you want to get technical). The smoke rises up through the water and then the chamber before entering your mouth and lungs.
If you’re looking for a smoother toke, a bong will give you just that compared to smoking weed rolled in paper.
As expected, the water in a bong eliminates the dry heat you get from a joint. The effect is often described as being cooler, creamy, and smooth rather than harsh.
This effect can be deceiving, though.
While the smoother smoke might feel better on your lungs, you’re still smoking. And that smoke is still filling up your lungs (we’ll spare the lecture on why this is all-around bad news for your health).
Sure, a small amount of the bad stuff might get filtered out. But it’s not enough to make much of a difference.
Yes, this means all those stories about bongs being the “safer” way to smoke are largely based on junk science.
So far, bong safety has been pretty low on the list of priorities when it comes to medical research. But as cannabis becomes legal in more areas, this could change.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations, smoke is harmful to lung health regardless of what you’re smoking because of the carcinogens released from the combustion of materials.
Smoking marijuana, whether via doobie or bong, can harm lung tissues and cause scarring and damage to your small blood vessels.
The tendency to inhale deeply and hold your breath when smoking pot means you’re often exposed to more tar per breath. Plus, bongs are basically a way to get more smoke into your lungs while also making that smoke more pleasant to inhale.
All of these aspects make it easy to overdo it when using a bong.
One other risk to keep in mind is related to the use of plastic bongs. Plastics that contain chemicals like BPA and phthalates have been linked to adverse health effects, including cancer.
Bong health risks aside, depending on where you live and local laws, having a bong with marijuana in it or even just some residue could get you in legal hot water.
Research also shows that marijuana-only smokers have more healthcare visits related to respiratory conditions than nonsmokers, regardless of the method used to inhale the smoke.
How do those fancy bongs, with all their bells and whistles, actually work? Plus, find out whether they're actually easier on your lungs than a joint.
Vegas’ salute to the cannabis culture: A 24-foot-long, fully functional bong
There are two flights of stairs curling around the head-turning glass bong, all 24 feet of it. There also will be an elevator to ferry people from the ground floor — where the pipe’s 100-gallon reservoir sits — to the mouthpiece high above.
It weighs more than 800 pounds and the bowl can pack a quarter of a pound of marijuana. It has elements in the glass that will make it glow — greenish mostly — while bathing in black light. Jason Harris, the artist who made it, said it’s his artistic opus to the cannabis culture.
“I make giant bongs,” he said. “They are my voice to make noise in the world.”
But to be heard and noticed on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas — where the bong is housed — is no small task.
It’s a sensory tsunami on Fremont, filled with street musicians playing “Stairway to Heaven” on electronic violins or steel drummers hammering out hits from the ’80s. There are screams from people shooting down a zip line above the street. Tribute bands blast metal music, and boozy packs of tourists point at half-naked men and women trying to lure them into posing for a picture.
And size matters, too.
Vegas Vic — the iconic neon cowboy — towers above a souvenir shop and stands 40 feet tall. There’s a giant pint of Guinness atop Hennessey’s that is 80 feet tall. Slotzilla, a slot machine perched in the middle of Fremont Street, reaches a height of 120 feet.
Harris saw it all as the perfect home for Bongzilla, as his creation has come to be known.
“Las Vegas will be the new Amsterdam of the world,” he said. “I see it as a big lighthouse and beacon that says, ‘Just smoke me.’”
But the 47-year-old knows that can’t happen in Las Vegas, at least not yet.
Though Nevada legalized recreational marijuana in 2017, it can only be consumed in a private residence. But it’s become a booming industry in the state, just the same.
This week, the Nevada Department of Taxation released numbers that showed that for the first full fiscal year, marijuana sales yielded tax collections totaling $69.8 million — 140% of what the state had forecast. Total sales — including medical marijuana and related goods — hit $529.9 million for the fiscal year.
Cannabition, the soon-to-open marijuana museum where the bong resides, is not a licensed dispensary, however. It sits on a leased spot of commercial space near a craft brewery and across from — conveniently for stoners — a Denny’s. The museum is scheduled to open officially in September.
Harris doesn’t really want any run-ins with the law — like that time in 2003 when he was arrested in a massive Justice Department raid dubbed Operation Pipe Dreams that also swept up actor Tommy Chong.
“At that point, I thought my bong-making career was over,” he said.
But by the time Colorado legalized recreational pot in 2012, he was back in the game, riding on his reputation as the founder of Jerome Baker Designs and crafting bongs — some as tall as 7 feet — as the world of cannabis culture grew more mainstream.
Bongzilla, Harris said, was a significant undertaking.
It took 15 people blowing glass eight hours a day — for four days — to make Bongzilla in a studio in Seattle. It then had to be disassembled, packed into special boxes and transported in a truck that wouldn’t draw a lot of attention. It was driven down Highway 95, a two-lane road that runs along Nevada’s western side through a smattering of small towns.
Harris said it seemed remarkable to him that the bong could travel by road through four states where the recreational use of marijuana is now legal — Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.
J.J. Walker, founder of Cannabition, said it took several days to reassemble Bongzilla and place it in its permanent home along the staircase. He said workers had to build a special clip to secure it to the railing so it won’t move. Reassembling the parts required a special bonding agent that would keep it intact while allowing smoke to flow freely through the tube.
They added a mural backdrop of Tokyo for Bongzilla’s display. No sign of Mothra, however.
Even though Bongzilla can’t legally be used to smoke weed, it was important to Walker and Harris that it work. Just in case.
Nevada state Sen. Tick Segerblom — a Democrat who is running for a seat on the Clark County Commission — said he envisions a day when people can take a hit off the enormous bong.
Segerblom, a longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana use more broadly, said when he first saw Bongzilla, it blew him away. He said the biggest bong he’d ever taken a hit on wasn’t even 2 feet high.
He said he’ll be attending the opening of Cannabition.
“It’s what we do best here, and it fits in well with our party and outlaw image,” Segerblom said. “But I’m also hoping it makes people aware that Las Vegas is the perfect place for the cannabis culture and, if we can pull this off, it will become a major focal point for us.”
Dubbed the world's first marijuana museum and set to open in Las Vegas, Cannibation will feature what it calls the world's longest bong, coming in at 24 feet. How was it made, transported and brought to Vegas? Very carefully, man.