A customer puffs an e-cigarette at the Henley Vaporium in New York. Vaping is a widely misunderstood and viewed with suspicion by smokers and non-smokers, says the writer. Picture: Mike Segar

From its lowly status as a somewhat square alternative, “vaping” has unexpectedly evolved into a booming subculture, says Maggie Follett.

Cape Town - Despise me, pity me, or empathise with me. Until last month I’d been smoking for over 30 years, having proudly inhaled for the first time, aged 17, in a locked bathroom at home, masked by a can of air freshener. Stupid? Sure, but, like millions of teens (then and now), I was coerced by a misguided, peer-driven desire for “coolth”. Within a year, I was on 20 a day. A further lifetime in advertising, TV and freelance writing entrenched my addiction.

Over the decades, many fellow-smokers have managed to snuff it (some quite literally), but I’ve secretly resented all those smug quitters for abandoning our reeking, yet comradely fold.

Now, I too have moved on, not because both my parents (one smoker, one non-) expired from lung cancer, nor because I live with a “born-again-breather” (and am relegated to stinking up my study), but, primarily, because I prefer a sociable puff with my pint – indoors.

Having been in the UK recently, I know the grim desperation of standing in a chilly, windy drizzle, dismally sucking on a damp fag, while my dop languishes, the requisite distance away, in some snug interior, along with my non-smoking mates – so I freely admit that the Cape winter (given the pariah status of smokers) is an alluring incentive to quit.

Until recently, the only option was to go “cold turkey”, but, often, cessation aids such as nicotine patches, gum, and antidepressants just don’t hack it, because, for many, smoking is more of an omnipresent psychological crutch; a comforting, time-honed ritual, imbuing the experience of doing nothing with a sense of purpose and meaning – whether it be waiting for a train; stuck in traffic; enjoying a coffee, a drink, or a meal, or simply just admiring a view. In truth, smokers are not Zen … and we know it! No matter how vociferously we defend our right to pollute and infringe the rights of others to breathe fresh air, we are filled with self-loathing.

Increasingly repressive laws, fuelled by depressingly irrefutable scientific studies (abetted by the crusades of anti-smoking zealots), have made us outcasts, enchained by our antisocial addiction. But breaking up is hard to do. As a new quitter poignantly stated: “I’ve lost my best friend!”

Enter – some five years ago – the e-cigarette: an effete, terminally uncool device; the sort of reprieve no hard-core, red-blooded Seffrican rooker could take seriously.

Times sure have changed!

Today, a vast variety of electronic units, emitting odourless, “smoke-alike” vapour, have become viable alternatives for former butt-heads, improving their quality of life, along with that of their friends and families … and possibly the environment at large.

From its lowly status as a somewhat square alternative, “vaping” has unexpectedly evolved into a booming international subculture, combining science, biology, engineering and art – and giving rise to a whole new lexicon.

The mechanism of electronic cigarettes, or VDs (vaping devices), is at once ridiculously simple and fiendishly clever. A battery charges a tiny element (coil) attached to a wick, which, when heated, absorbs and vapourises a mixture of three or four components. A water-based flavourant (along with nicotine, in varying levels from 24mg to 0) is dissolved in a hygroscopic (water-absorbing) base, to produce a smoke-simulating vapour, which is relayed through the mouthpiece.

The two carriers used are propylene glycol (PG) and/or vegetable glycerine (VG), both of which – contrary to popular misconception – have numerous common pharmaceutical and culinary applications. E-liquid (e-juice/smoke-juice), available in 10ml and 30ml bottles, typically contains a blend of both; thicker VG gives more vapour; PG more flavour. Hundreds of flavours (and combinations thereof) are available across the taste spectrum, from those that mimic a variety of tobaccos, to fruits, nuts, confectionery, desserts, coffee and menthol – even fast foods, such as pizzas and burgers. (Reputable brands are lab-created and strictly quality-controlled, but beware of cheap Chinese knock-offs!)

And that’s about it.

Considering that the average ex-smoker is replacing more than 4 000 chemicals (among them some 51 known toxins or carcinogens, such as formaldehyde, benzine, cyanide and arsenic, along with carbon-monoxide and lung-clogging tar), with a maximum of four products, it’s fair to say that vaping might just provide an effective, less damaging alternative to smoking, particularly as it is a direct-delivery device, dispensing swiftly-dispersing vapour, thereby alleviating the hazards of second-hand smoke.

However, vaping is still widely misunderstood, and viewed with suspicion by smokers and non-smokers alike.

Way back in 1963, pioneering Herbert A Gilbert of Pennsylvania, US, filed a patent for a smokeless, electric cigarette, “to provide a safe and harmless means for and method of smoking, by replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavoured air…”

Sadly, this brilliant concept remained a pipe-dream, due to a lack of both technological savvy and an eager market.

In the early 2000s, with corporate backing, Chinese pharmacist and smoker, Hon Lik (whose father had died of cancer), began working on an electronic system that enabled smokers to inhale nicotine without tobacco or smoke. An atomising pipe, cigar, and (in 2007) a cigarette, were subsequently released under the brand-name Ruyan, meaning “like smoke”. Having successfully captured the Chinese market, devices based on Lik’s invention rapidly became de rigueur in the West.

Undaunted by a hotly-contested EU rejection, harsh new FDA regulations, and recent public bans in several US states, the international vaping community continues to grow apace, as evinced by countless supplier sites, online forums, blogs, YouTube reviews, social media groups, vape-fests and gatherings. Unconfirmed estimates suggest that there are more than 1.5 million users in the UK, over 500 000 in France and Italy, 2.3 million in Germany, and 3.5 million in the US alone.

Diehard smokers everywhere are increasingly eschewing “analog(ue)s” in favour of e-cigs and PVs (personal vapourisers), but vaping boasts its own esoteric jargon and slang that can be daunting for newbies trying to come to grips with the bewildering choice of gear.

Let’s demystify some vape-speak terminology:

E-cigs (cigalikes/sticks)

Resembling cigarettes, these low-maintenance, automatic, drag-activated “minis” come in various forms, from entirely disposable, pre-filled, single-unit el-cheapos, to kit-form e-cigs that utilise a combined disposable, or refillable, plastic cartridge/mouthpiece called a “cartomiser” (a portmanteau of cartridge and atomiser), attached to a slim, rechargeable battery. They’re a doddle to use, but flavours are fairly limited, and vapour-production is low.

PVs (vape pens)

One up from e-cigs are mid-sized, manually-operated personal vapourisers, in the eGo/Twisp style. Available in starter-kit form, these too have rechargeable batteries of varying strengths, with detachable, refillable atomiser tanks. (Transparent “attys” are known as “clearomisers”.) Integrated tanks are disposable, while others have separate, replaceable single or dual coils, the life of which can be extended through cleaning and dry-burning, to remove juice-residue. Despite requiring higher maintenance, PVs offer longer life, better vapour production, improved throat-hit, plus the benefit of being able to top up with the thousands of e-juice brands available. Many midis now sport interchangeable parts, adaptors and additional functions that cross over into the “APV” zone.

APVs (mods)

Seasoned users prefer advanced personal vapourisers, or mods. These high-performance, dual- or triple-coil customisable devices are available in the form of fat metal cylinders (Tubemods), or small boxes (Boxmods). All use separate lithium batteries of varying wattage and voltage. Parts are replaceable, and often incorporate functions such as puff-counters, adjustable ohm levels, digital readouts, and so on, allowing users to manually manipulate all aspects of the device. Bespoke designer mods are becoming increasingly popular, while dedicated hobbyists and tech-geeks adapt off-the-peg models, or construct them from scratch.

Sub-ohm vaping

Extreme vapers pimp their kits for sub-ohm vaping, reducing atomiser resistance to produce vast billows of vapour – an admittedly impressive practice that’s likely to hasten local bans on indoor vaping.

With e-juices selling upwards of R50 for 10ml e-liquid (and R120 for 30ml), another trend among DIY-ers is producing home-made e-juice, which dramatically cuts costs for all-day-vapers, but should not be contemplated by amateurs!

Distressingly, though, for those who’ve joined the fold, Vapeland is under threat. Despite studies indicating that smokers are 60 percent more likely to quit when using e-cigarettes, and a three-day World Vapor Expo (featuring 300 exhibitors), in Miami, Florida, last month, restrictions are on the increase.

Governments, possibly influenced by negative spin promulgated by pharmaceutical and tobacco giants, are doing their utmost to quell the rise of the practice (while certain cigarette companies – in the expedient spirit of free enterprise – are muscling in on the act, taking advantage of a new source of revenue).

Much rests on the decision of the World Health Organisation, recipients of an impassioned plea by 53 leading scientists and researchers from Europe, Australia, North America and Asia, who have begged the WHO (which controls tobacco regulation in 178 countries) “to resist the urge to … suppress e-cigarettes”, as “these products could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century – perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives”.

This is reinforced by a statement from Professor John Britton, chairman of the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians: “If all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes, we would save 5 million deaths… It’s a massive potential public health prize.”

South African vaping legislation is still cloudy, but likely to be affected by the recommendations of the WHO treaty, later this year.

This article is not intended as a pro-vaping panegyric, but rather, an honest attempt to dissipate the haze surrounding e-cigs.

For my part, I smell more wholesome, wake up without a rook-babelaas and, best of all, experienced none of the monster-raving-loony withdrawal symptoms that beset recent quitters. (Admittedly, I still get a – heavily diminished – “nic-fix”, but then, that’s not the killer in cancer-sticks!)

Having survived a brief, apparently inevitable bout of the dreaded vaper’s tongue (taste bud fatigue), I debuted socially last week, and was wryly amused by the horror with which my smoking cronies greeted the offer of a vape toke; inter alia: “No way am I going to put that s*** into my lungs,” and, “You don’t know what’s in that stuff!”

Well, apparently, only about 3 966 fewer chemicals than in the average cigarette


PS: For an eloquent argument in support of vaping, see: http://digicig.co.za/arguing-e-cigarettes-qa-seen-www-clivebates-com/

* Maggie Follett is a Cape Town-based freelance writer.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Times