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An interesting piece by Ruby Warrington of the Sunday Times explores vaping at New York Fashion Week. This is a well balanced article that gives the pros from those on the scene but presents the facts in a realistic and grounded manner. Enjoy...
It’s snowing hard outside a party at the recently opened High Line hotel during New York Fashion Week , and a gaggle of bedraggled smokers stand huddled together against the blizzard conditions. Inside, Manhattan’s most fashionable young things are crowding round a table where another kind of smoke is available, dispensing with the need to brave the sub-zero temperatures outside. The dry ice on the dancefloor mixes with plumes of something that’s richly scented but quick to evaporate. Except that this isn’t technically “smoke”. Toking on slick metallic pipes, the kids are actually blowing out clouds of flavoured vapour.
“When I started vaping at fashion week three years ago, people thought it was gimmicky and weird,” says Talia Eisenberg, co-founder of Manhattan’s premier “ vape shop”, the Henley Vaporium. A reformed party girl, she started vaping as a way to get off cigarettes (“my final vice”). When it worked overnight, she realised, “this is a game changer. This is the future of smoking”.
In a few short years, vaping – inhaling richly flavoured nicotine-laced “vapour” through a metal pipe or “mod” – has burgeoned into a thriving subculture that is on the brink of going mainstream. At the Henley – part chic SoHo café, part Amsterdam head shop – tattooed twentysomethings crowd the “sampling bar” to taste more than 120 flavours of “e-juice”, most of them available in five different strengths of nicotine, from zero to 24mg. “We cater to hardcore, pack-a-day smokers, right down to people who just like the meditative effect of inhaling and exhaling,” says Eisenberg.
The idea is to wean the nicotine addicts off the dirtier version of their habit completely – and if people come to get off regular cigarettes, they often stay for the scene. “Lets’ face it, this is way cooler than a nicotine patch,” says Eisenberg, toting her own elegant, steam punk-style pipe and blowing out a cloud of vanilla-and-rhubarb-scented vapour. Originally developed using mobile-phone technology – batteries small enough to fit in a container the shape and size of a cigarette – vaping devices, unlike traditional cigarettes, come in all shapes and sizes. The battery fits into a “mod” (short for modification) and is used to heat the “juice” (a mixture of vegetable glycerine, propylene glycol, distilled water, nicotine, and natural and synthetic flavouring) to produce the vapour.
“They’re like man jewellery. It’s an accessory, like a watch,” says Nick, an employee at Henley, name checking Atmomixani, Mojo Vapes and a man called Pedro as some of the top names in vaping devices. “An origal Pedro Caravela” will go for thousands of dollars,” he says. One company has even commissioned the cult rifle engraver Otto Carter to customise pieces – “When his hand touches one of these mods, it goes from a $100 (£60) device to a $2000-$3000 piece.”
Where there are gadgets there are geeks. Enter the enthusiasts, aka the scenes “flavour junkies” and “cloud chasers”, who like to customise their mods in order to personalise their vaping experience. “Depending how you coil the electrical resistant wire that’s used to heat the device, you can control the flow of air. It’s a way of tailoring your vaping experience to give you the flavour and the throat feel you want,” says Nick, who runs customising forums at the Henley.
Rip Trippers, a man from North Dakota with a name you couldn’t make up – all hipster beard and wild eyes underneath his trucker cap – is one of the best known online vaping resources. His YouTube channel is dedicated to mod-rebuilding tutorials and reviews of the latest device, and features clips with names like “How vaping changed my life”. A reformed cigarette smoker himself (he watched his two-packs-a-day father die of heart failure), he says: “I used to be in it for myself. I was chasing that flavour, the throat hit, the vapour. I felt like Chuck Yeager in an X-1, pushing the envelope, chasing the wall of sound. But then I realised this wasn’t about me. I feel like God gave me this opportunity to help keep everyone else off the cigs and bring new vapours in.”
The vaping community isn’t allowed to make any official health claims, but devotees such as Cheryl Richter of the National Vapers Club, a consumer-run organisation that promotes responsible legislation around vaping , says: “The story about how vaping has changed the lives of people who have been smoking for 20 to 30 years and thought they’d never quit is one you hear over and over again.” The argument goes that, yes, while vaping is still addictive because nicotine is, you get the hit without the proven carcinogens of tobacco cigarettes. It’s thought to be harmless, though we don’t yet know the impact on the lungs of inhaling propylene glycol.
Overall, vaping is a compelling sell. Richter has just opened her own vape shop in Port Chester, in upstate New York, and there are now an estimated 3,500 “bricks and mortar” stores in America. Meanwhile, total e-cig sales are predicted to top $10bn (£6bn) by 2017 in the States, with some analysts suggesting sales of vaping products could even overtake those of traditional cigarettes by 2023.
For now, the scene is bubbling along underground, with Eisenberg likening it to the birth of Apple computers. “You had this bunch of nerds in a lab engineering their own machines. In 10 years, there’ll probably be one product that’s the industry standard,” she says.
It’s doubtful it will take that long. One company, Ploom, is already marketing a vaporiser that looks as if it’s straight out of the Apple studio – all sleek lines and prepacked “pax” of loose leaf tobacco (think Nespresso) in a sophisticated white and gold box. By advertising in fashionable magazines,under the slogan “for the naughty and the nice,” co-founder James Monsees says he’s “targeting the sometimes smoker and the conflicted smoker. There’s an ever-growing population of people who are increasingly at odds with the idea of smoking regular cigarettes.” Ploom is already sold in Austria, Italy, Korea, and Japan, and Monsees has what he sees as a barely tapped market in his sights. “There’s a revolution happening in tobacco, and that’s something to embrace,” he says.
Or as Trippers prefers to put it: “Smoking is dead, vaping is the future, and the future is now.”
Sunday Times Magazine, 23 February 2014