"Smoke" vs "vapour"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


“Smoke” vs “vapour” in the description of a vapourizer in a Vancouver café that caters to marijuana users

You wrote in October, 2008, to take issue with an item on CBC Radio by reporter Greg Rasmussen concerning activities in a Vancouver café. The café caters to marijuana users. In the report, Mr. Rasmussen described the operation of a machine called a vapourizer which he said “sends smoke into a large plastic bag, ready for inhaling.” The rest of the item talked about other marijuana-related activities in Vancouver and across the country and touched on the views of observers and researchers on the efficacy of the country's marijuana laws.

You complained about the use of the word “smoke.” You wrote that the “Volcano”—the brand-name of the vapourizer—does not produce “smoke.” You stated “it heats up the pot but doesn't burn it. That is the point of the volcano.”

Mr. Rasmussen replied that the dictionary definition of the word is “a cloud of fine particles suspended in a gas,” and that his use was correct.

You rejected his explanation, saying that “it is little things like that that make our job of educating the public so much harder…It makes it harder for people to take the use of cannabis by my epileptic wife seriously.”

In a subsequent note you said that “your assertion suggests that people using a volcano are exposing themselves to the same dangers as smoke, like tar and other carcinogens. This suggests that the volcano is about as dangerous as a bong or joint which isn't true.”

You asked for a review.

Mr. Rasmussen's task is to create understandable mental images for his listeners during a radio report. It is clear from his responses that he felt that his audience would best understand the word “smoke” as describing the appearance of the substance that enters the large bag after vapourization.

I have tended to use the Oxford Canadian Dictionary as my touchstone when questions of word usage arise. It defines “smoke” this way: 1a. a visible suspension of carbon etc. in air emitted from a burning substance. b. vapour etc. resembling smoke.

So Mr. Rasmussen seems to have a considerable backing for his description of the substance in non-scientific terms. I should also point out that the intent of the item was not to describe the medicinal claims of the Volcano, but to talk more generally about the more recent spread of the use of marijuana, for whatever reason.

That being said, it is useful for all reporters to be as accurate as possible in the use of language. Had Mr. Rasmussen used the word “vapour” instead of “smoke,” listeners would have had sufficient information to form a mental image of what was going on.


Mr. Rasmussen did not violate CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices in his casual use of the word “smoke” to describe what the substance in the Volcano bag looked like. However, he would have been even more precise had he said that “it looked like smoke” or described it as “vapour.” In a story about the claimed medical properties of the device, the latter usages would have been appropriate. In a general item like the one presented, I cannot really find fault with Mr. Rasmussen's language.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman