Will Vaping Survive in America?
It's difficult to grasp how totally fucking uncool vaping is until you find yourself getting shit-talked by a cigarette smoker in a bad suit outside a dive bar while the rain pounds the tiny awning under which you've both taken refuge. Or at least, that’s where I was when vaping's stigma fully clicked for me.
"We get it, you vape," the guy says, sneering. He's in his early 30s, I guess, and loose enough to have a little mean-spirited fun with the only person below him on the vice chain. Then he laughs. "No, I'm just fucking with you, bro. That's just a meme."
I take another puff of my vape -- a matte-black "box mod" filled with espresso-flavored e-liquid that I bought in an effort to understand what it's like to be a vaper. I smile politely. He's right. That is a meme. Hit Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit, and you'll find a whole universe of jokes to which vaping is the punchline. Smoking is lethal -- 480,000 related deaths in the US annually -- but vaping? Thanks to all the YouTube and Vine cloud-blowing videos, a hacker/gamer/mall-rat public image, and the complete lack of hip, ready-to-die cigarette cachet, vapers are the easiest marks around.
"I feel like Gob from Arrested Development," lamented Nick "Grimm" Green, a prominent YouTube vaping personality who owns an e-liquid company in Southern California. "'We demand to be taken seriously!'"
But beneath the memes, fedoras, and horrifying headlines about exploding batteries (more on that later), though, you'll find a $3.5 billion American industry (the world's largest) that's doubled in size nearly every year for the past half-decade. In the US, Big Tobacco is in the game, producing "cigalike" brands like VUSE (R.J. Reynolds) and Blu (Imperial, formerly Lorillard). But they're just part of a crowded field that includes tens of thousands of employees at hundreds of manufacturers that supply the roughly 10,000 shops that serve some 20 million American vapers. Some of the latter are neckbeards and self-righteous douchebags, sure, but most are just regular people who used to smoke cigarettes and don't want to anymore.
And those people just took a hit. On May 5th, the FDA finally did what vaping advocates have long been dreading, and issued a raft of new regulations that would treat e-cigarettes essentially like regular cigarettes. The biggest aftershocks won't hit until a two-year grace period ends, but a bitter debate over vaping has already been raging for years. Expect it to intensify. Advocates say the new rules will make products too expensive to develop, essentially marching thousands of small companies right into the maw of Big Tobacco -- which has taken an interest in the vaping market -- and they worry people will be forced to get their nicotine fix from inferior gum or patches or, worse, combustible cigarettes. Critics counter that regulation is essential to assure quality and protect the nation's youth, who are vaping at a disproportionate rate. In the thick cloud of ideology, rhetoric, and contradictory evidence, only one thing is certain: if the Vapocalypse plays out as foretold, it will destroy the US vaping industry as we know it. The question is: do we care?
The Road to Vapocalypse
April 15th, 2009 was a Wednesday. It was around 60 and sunny when the shipment of NJOY e-cigarettes arrived at a warehouse in Phoenix. NJOY e-cigarettes look like combustible cigarettes and are marketed to smokers. Founded in 2006, the brand was in 50 countries by 2009, and its parent company, Sottera, was going places. But on that Wednesday in Arizona, NJOY e-cigs ran into a big obstacle: the FDA, under whose direction they were detained by officials.
Under pressure from tobacco-control groups, the FDA argued that e-cigs were therapeutic products and therefore subject to certain market regulations. In the agency's ensuing legal skirmish with Sottera and distributor Smoking Everywhere, the courts disagreed, asserting that unless e-cig brands made therapeutic claims in their marketing, the FDA lacked jurisdiction. The so-called "Sottera decision" opened the floodgates on the US market, and the deluge had worldwide impact. In 2009, global e-cigarette sales were approximately $40 million; in 2011, just a year after Sottera, sales had quintupled to around $200 million.
Overnight, it seemed, a golden age of vaping swept across America. Vape shops sprang up in strip malls. New technology arrived almost daily -- better batteries, better coils, better juices. Better everything. "That case changed the precedent," remembered Daniel Walsh, the co-founder and CEO of Purebacco, a 30-employee Michigan company that produces e-liquids. "Literally a month later, we went to market."
In 2014, the FDA tried a different tack. It announced its intent to classify vapor products (which at this point included all sorts of devices, not just cigalikes) as "electronic nicotine delivery systems" -- a move that would subject them to the same regulations that govern combustible cigarettes. This meant no more unregulated manufacturing or marketing, no more sales without age verification, no more free giveaways.
If all that sounds good in theory, that's because it is. People on both sides of the debate tend to agree that regulation is needed. They disagree, however, on just how sweeping the regulation should be. For instance, the 2014 proposal included price estimates just for applying to get a single vapor product approved, and it is high. The FDA said around $335,000; an independent research firm quoted in the Wall Street Journal put it at $2 million to $10 million. Either way, it's more than most manufacturers have lying around... except for Big Tobacco. According to Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, these rules would amount to "a prohibition to 99.99% of the market."
While the FDA deliberated the regulations, the US market boomed, teen vaping rates skyrocketed, and doctors around the world argued over vaping's relative health benefits. Then the agency handed down its long-awaited decision. It's 499 pages long, but the sentence everyone has been waiting for is towards the front: "Products that meet the statutory definition of 'tobacco products' include [...] e-cigarettes, e-hookah, e-cigars, vape pens, advanced refillable personal vaporizers, and electronic pipes."
A couple weeks before the FDA made its announcement, I called Walsh. He's a trip: a scientist with blond dreadlocks down to his knees, a background in artificial intelligence, and formal training in shamanism. They call him the "high priest of vaping," and his prophecy was bleak. If the regulations arrived as expected, he predicted, they'd be followed by "a period of petulant tribalism that will be absolutely chaotic."
That period is now upon us.
So, again: do we care?
Why We Should Probably Care...
If the only thing you know about vaping is that it somehow has the transcendental ability to make even Leonardo DiCaprio look like a substitute teacher in a tux, you might be tempted to view all this as a delightful little morality tale: vapers are a bunch of losers, clowns, and loose cannons, and they're getting what they deserve. But that's far too tidy. Vaping, despite its cultural baggage, has genuine potential to benefit public health -- and some doctors are screaming this from the rooftops.
Dr. Michael Siegel is a Boston University professor of community health sciences who has studied tobacco harm issues for about 25 years. "The key issue is not whether [vaping is] absolutely safe," he said. "The key is: is it much safer than smoking? And I think unequivocally it is."
This is a controversial opinion in the US, and many of Siegel's own colleagues disagree with him. Globally, though, his stance is more widely accepted. Take the UK: in 2015, Public Health England released a report claiming that vaporized nicotine products (VPNs) are up to 95% safer than cigarettes. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister David Cameron put himself in vaping's corner. Then, last month, the Royal College of Physicians released its own strong endorsement: "E-cigarettes appear to be effective when used by smokers as an aid to quitting smoking."
Here in the US, vaping has fewer allies. Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association, argued that people are both smoking and vaping, not doing one or the other. "When you look at the data, you see that people move to using electronic cigarettes at the same time as cigarettes," she cautioned, referring to this 2014 National Institutes of Health study. Another researcher, Dr. Robert Jackler, a physician and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, contends that doctors can't be totally sure that the aerosols in vaping products won't prove harmful in the long run.
This way of thinking drives vaping advocates crazy. "My frustration level is really off the charts," said Peter Denholtz, the owner of Manhattan's Henley Vaporium. "Sure, we might find out in 20 years that B is bad. Fine! But right now, we know A kills you. We know [cigarettes] kill you! What are we waiting for?!"
People in the vaping world spend a lot of time talking about the technology as a medical miracle that'll save hundreds of thousands of American lives and an economic stimulus that’ll create hundreds of thousands of American jobs. They may be right. The problem with selling this message is that the industry in general and vapers in particular keep getting in the way, displaying an uncanny knack for playing to their worst stereotypes. Call it "life imitates meme," or "heartbreaking," or both. But the fact is, vapers need to be liked right now, and the fact is, they can be really, really easy to hate.
The Case Against Vapes, Pt. 1: They Target the Kids!
I'm hanging out at Henley Vaporium, talking to Denholtz. He's a parent, so I wanted to ask him about the uncomfortable link between vaping and teenagers, which has led opponents like the American Lung Association to argue that the industry is "aggressively targeting" youth.
Here, the statistics get tricky. According to a CDC report released last month, electronic cigarette use went from 1.5% to 16% among American high school students between 2011 and 2015. Critics of this report argue that the number is inflated because it includes, for instance, experimental users who have vaped only a handful of times. They object to the fact that the CDC lumps together nicotine and tobacco (thus showing a high overall youth tobacco rate even though combustible cigarette use is at a historic low) and also to the contention that nicotine is, absent the combustion-generated tar, dangerous on its own.
Whatever the shortcomings of the CDC report, it's undeniable that vaping has become "a thing" with cool teens. That's raised alarms in the tobacco-control community, especially since vapor products, unlike cigarettes, are allowed to be flavored -- to taste like, say, banana cream or cotton candy. "Do you have any doubt when you look at the flavors [that the industry is marketing to kids]?" asked Jackler, the Stanford physician.
Many adult vapers insist that they are the target for e-liquid flavors (there's even evidence supporting that the flavors help adults stay interested and satisfied by vapor products). But it's hard to buy that argument when you look at the marketing for some of these products. Bad graphic design abounds, and it often caters to juvenile interests: scantily clad women, innuendo, and pop-culture references. The resulting aesthetic is like a cross between a Hoobastank album, a bunch of henna tattoos, and a rejected poster design for Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.
Vaping advocates I spoke to recognize that this is one of the industry's Achilles' heels. "If you're standing in front of the California Health Committee," said Green, the business-owning YouTube star (who lives in San Diego), "and they hold up a bottle that looks like a Twizzlers but it's 'Vapez-lers!' you're like, 'Ah, shit. Yep. I can’t defend that.'"
If manufacturers are deliberately courting the kids, you'd never get them to admit it. But the sophomoric marketing makes it easy for vaping's detractors to depict the industry as malignant, and the vaping world doesn't seem to care. As Aaron Biebert, director of the soon-to-be-released vaping documentary A Billion Lives, put it, "As a group, [vapers] don't understand how terrible they look."
The Case Against Vapes, Pt. 2: They Look Ridiculous!
As the American vaping industry grows up, it's reasonable to expect that the way it presents itself will skew less shit-headed. It's harder to imagine that evolution for vapers themselves. To illustrate the point, I give you... cloud chasers.
Cloud chasers are vapers who go to vape shops, trade shows, and conferences and compete with one another to blow the largest clouds of vapor. If you think that sounds incredibly silly, verging on pathetic, then you're probably not a cloud chaser (or a "cloud gazer," which is what the spectators call themselves). But they exist. They were in the Wall Street Journal, for Chrissake! Some of them are sponsored by juice companies or online retailers, and some of them, said Green, are "douchebag vapers" who might upload YouTube videos or Vines "being like, 'Watch my sick cloud... in Walmart!'"
Predictably, no vaping issue is easier for the media to flatten than these highly visible, highly polarizing goofballs, which is probably why the more conventional vapers I spoke to are reluctant to talk about them. But cloud chasers aren't the only blemish on vaping's public image.
"There's a degree of self-righteousness within this culture," said Purebacco's Walsh. "Americans... do not respond well to somebody whose defense is self-righteousness. [So] when a guy sits down on an airplane and blows a big cloud of vapor [and] the woman sitting beside him with the 3-year-old says, 'Stop blowing vapor on my baby!' And he responds, in singsong, 'You can't make me. I'm not breaking the rules...'"
Walsh paused for several seconds. I was about to ask a follow-up, when he bellowed into the phone at the plane vaper: "NO,YOU'RE BEING A DICK,THOUGH!QUIT BEING A DICK!"
These people are just a small part of America's vaping population. As Lisa Marie Farver, social media coordinator at Chicagoland retail and e-commerce shop Vapor4Life, pointed out, there are millions of others who are just trying to get as far away as possible from the Big Tobacco companies that fucked 'em up in the first place. But those vapers don't get the attention. "You don't see a photo of a 65-year-old woman vaping," Farver said. "That's the real face, and it's not being seen at all."
The Case Against Vapes, Pt. 3: They Keep Blowing Themselves Up!
I was working on this story a couple weeks ago, vaping up a (nicotine-free) storm at my desk for research, when no fewer than a half-dozen co-workers G-chatted me with the same link in rapid succession. It was a link to the story about the Dora the Explorer voice actress who got suspended from her school for vaping.
What a story! It had it all -- the nostalgia of a kids TV show, the voyeuristic thrill of seeing a celebrity in trouble, and of course, the vaping. I mean, how could you not click that in your feed? I would! I did! It's funny! But it betrays a less funny problem: vaping is easy to laugh at, so at every chance, publications hungry for easy traffic will pile on.
Unsurprisingly, most of the vapers I spoke with have a vocal mistrust of "mainstream media." Some of this is just the standard paranoia of a young, misunderstood subculture, but there is a pattern if you spend time researching the subject. Take, for example, the ongoing saga of exploding batteries. "When someone's irresponsible with a battery -- which happens -- they show this poor kid who burned his leg [and say] he got blown up by an e-cig," complained Green. "They don't put a face on anything unless it's negative."
There are a lot of stories about horrifying battery explosions and the carnage they've caused. On one hand -- yeah, no shit! These things are exploding in people's faces! But on the other... well, there is no other hand. And that's the problem. Very few stories in mainstream media outlets have explored why they're exploding, or how they can be improved. (WIRED’s investigation is good, though.)
And anyway, exploding batteries are a solvable problem. One culprit is user error: inexperienced vapers overheating their batteries to the point of combustion. Another culprit is inconsistent manufacturing standards -- which the new FDA regulations will address. But nuance does not traffic drive. So instead we wind up with a steady stream of injury porn that helps form a lasting impression of countless obnoxious vapers self-immolating via e-cig. When Farver told her mother she had been hired by a vaping company, "even my mom was like 'these things are blowing up in people's faces, Lisa!'"
Conclusion: Vapocalypse Now
It's hard not to feel for vapers. Cigarette smokers don't want them in the huddle. They're mocked online and kicked out of restaurants and bars. Advocates have had little success distancing the technology from the very thing it was invented to replace: the pure, unmitigated evil of Big Tobacco. They're fighting wars in policy, medicine, and culture, and they are woefully outgunned on the first two fronts and painfully inept on the last.
So they come to places like Peter Denholtz's shop. On the walls are painted lists of chemicals left behind when vapers quit cigarettes. In the corner, there's a shrine of smiling Polaroids of proud customers who've made the switch. The vapers talk. They vape. And now that the FDA has finally released its decision, their days may be numbered.
Denholtz, like most shop owners I spoke with for this piece, anticipates his business will be forced to close if the FDA's regulations play out the way everyone expects them to, and no help comes from Congress (which could still happen if the public wills it). He predicts there simply won't be enough approved, high-quality product to sell. Where would his customers go then? "I don't know. But there's no stopping this freight train," said Denholtz.
Henley's wall of fame was on my mind when I spoke to Erika Sward from the American Lung Association. What if vape shops go out of business? Wouldn't it create a black market? I asked. "From our perspective, we are a public health organization. We care about the health and well-being of our nation and its children especially. We're ultimately less concerned about whether the [US] electronic cigarette marketplace works itself out."
They may not care, but vapers do. "The 'underground railroad' has already been built," Walsh told me. There are direct-sales loopholes to exploit, and multi-level marketing enterprises that he says will move in to fill the void. He'll shift his business' focus to more welcoming international markets. The FDA regulations will almost certainly set the industry back domestically, but the global e-commerce marketplace is enormous, and the world's medical organizations seem to be coming around to the brighter side of vapor.
But will vaping survive in America? This is a harder question to answer. If the new rules play out as feared, some vapers will participate in the black market; some will return to combustible tobacco; and that self-righteous vaping minority -- the group that Walsh sees as vaping's biggest existential threat -- will become even more recalcitrant, making mainstream support impossible to muster.
That support is key, if the industry is to weather the Vapocalypse. As Walsh puts it, "If we can get 'soccer mom adoption,' we have achieved a degree of equilibrium." That means the countercultural, deliberate, blow-clouds-in-a-movie-theater defiance that enables non-vapers to roll their eyes and mock 2.5 million Americans with the phrase, "We get it, you vape" -- that will have to go. Ripping out a subculture's rebel soul, no matter how douchey it can be, is no easy thing. But if vaping in America will survive, it'll only be if it takes off the cheap fedora and grows up.
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Dave Infante is a writer-at-large for Thrillist. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.