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Vaping: a future written in the clouds

A committed smoker from the age of 16, like many I’d tried most things in my sporadic efforts to quit: patches, chewing gum, cutting down, changing brands… finding something else to take my mind off it (I became, and remain, something of an expert with a yoyo)… but e-cigarettes were the game-changer. The early, basic models looked like cigarettes, glowed at the tip when you took a drag, provided a satisfying ‘throat-hit’ – and, though the taste wasn’t exactly pleasant, it wasn’t a million miles from the flavour of tobacco, either. This was a nicotine delivery system that, while not as enjoyable as fags (and let’s be honest here – it isn’t, and never will be), was just about good enough: approved-of, socially; cheaper; convenient (many pubs and restaurants allowed e-cigarettes to be used indoors); and, crucially, the evidence suggested (and continues to suggest – more on this later) that e-cigarettes were up to 95% less harmful than what they were replacing.

I saw my first e-cigarette in, I think, 2009. I was interested enough to try it, but not – quite – to make the switch.

Those early e-cigs (early to me, anyway) – or, more likely, modern variations of them – are still widely available. Pop into pretty much any newsagents’ and you can pick a disposable e-fag (not that you should), battery pre-charged and e-liquid loaded, for somewhere north of a fiver.

But where it all started to get interesting, what really (if you will) lit a fire under the industry (and led me, in 2015, to make the change), was the move away from ‘cigalikes’ to tank-based systems and, a little later, mods. Both established vaping as different, something increasingly apart from ‘traditional’ smoking; and gave the users agency: over what flavours they preferred, the nicotine content, the amount of vapour produced and – crucially – the design (or designs) they felt suited them.

What followed – along with exponential growth in popularity and usage – was a division of vaping devices, broadly along gender lines. A generalisation: but women vapers, you can’t have failed to notice, seem to prefer a slimmer, more elegant model; men, by contrast, go for size, chunkiness, and the ability to clog their immediate surroundings with a thick diffusion of sweet-smelling fug. Small wonder that many of the bars and eateries that earlier allowed the use of e-cigarettes have subsequently withdrawn that permission.

As a man who’s never afraid to acknowledge and indulge his feminine side, I fall sort-of in the middle. My vape (pictured above) could, conceivably, belong in a lady’s handbag; but also rubs nicely against the thigh when thrust into a jeans pocket. The colour I find pleasingly butch, and I like the fact that it’s a bit battered (as is its owner).

But the modders – if that’s the correct term – those guys (and it always is guys) are a breed apart. Men who’ve looked at what’s on the market, decided there’s nothing sufficiently hardcore available to buy, and decided to make their own. Out of an old bicycle pump, a Liebig condenser and a trumpet mouthpiece, with enough battery power to light up a small town and producing a fog so thick as to support the weight of a small child. Walk into any vape shop and you’ll find them (vape shops being a social club for modders), beards flapping (perhaps the thick, unkempt whiskers act as a rudimentary filter) as they discuss/drone on about sub-ohming, DNA chipsets, dripping, hot spots, hybrids, squonking… Blokes being blokes, incomprehensible jargon is half the fun.

The rise and rise of vaping is a sans-pareil example of disruptive innovation: something no-one saw coming, which proved an immediate hit. We can all think of others. Recorded music, for instance: operatic tenor Enrico Caruso would surely not have enjoyed such worldwide adulation were it not for the fact that anyone with a phonograph and a bit of spare change could listen to him. Uber, which has redefined – is redefining – the taxi business. Good old Netflix, which ran Blockbuster out of town.

But what all disruptive technologies have in common is that the authorities – scientists, regulators etc – are caught cold, and struggle to keep up. To provide some sort of framework – ensuring that recording artists get paid; that Uber drivers (and passengers) are safe; that video-streaming services adhere to certain standards.

And this is as true of vaping as everything else. Truer, even. Do the much-vaunted health benefits have any basis in fact? Who should regulate the industry? Should vaping be taxed as swingeingly as tobacco products? Should mods – which have a tendency to catch fire, or explode – be banned outright?

Right now, unless I’m missing something, vaping – the popularity of it, the proliferation of new products – continues to outrun both scientific research, and regulation, both of which are huffing and puffing in its hazy wake.

But unless and until new evidence comes to light, I shall continue to vape with the best of them. I suspect, intuitively, that ‘95%-less-harmful’ is erring on the optimistic; but while there’s nothing like a fag (nor ever will be), vaping – particularly as it divorces itself ever further from ‘tobacco culture’ – is more than acceptable; and, increasingly, more than an alternative.

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