Vaping isn’t cool. That is perhaps the only thing we can all agree on these days. So how did something so uncool permeate and proliferate the hands and mouths of tweenagers and finance bro’s alike. This editorial takes a look at the constitution of the vape, the way we use it and what it reveals about ourselves and where we are heading.
Blowing Bubbles; Some Ideas on the Vape
The (ugly) origin of the vape offers up a useful starting point. Modern culture’s memory might have forgotten, perhaps because of a desire to block out its ugliness or because of the sheer volume and velocity of the new multi-colored disposable vapes, but their progenitors were large, box shaped, VAPES, or “vaporizers” (their intensity requires correlative formating). Upon the box sat a glass chamber into which vape juice would surge around a metal coil that could well be the hyperdrive capacitator on the Millennium Falcon. The vast majority of vapes today are quite far from the intergalactic machine that formerly dominated the market. Vapes became smaller, sleeker and more inconspicuous with the introduction of the JUUL. As if they became self-conscious, vapes started to diet, hiding that unattractive curvy coil. The battery symbol on the screen of a box vape gave way to the color coordinated LED dot of the JUUL. This motif has continued through to the epidemic of disposable vapes: water-tight colorful things that could easily be mistaken for a dummy or a toy, the former indicators of their vapey-ness have disappeared. So, the vape’s lifeline confirms its uncoolness; it knows it needs to hide certain parts of itself (or its marketers do). The vape is self-knowing, but so are we. We cradle vapes in clasped fingers. We cover them in our hands at school; at the office; it lives in bathrooms; in pulled-up sleeves in university lecture halls with students “double inhaling” so as to remain incognito. The cigarette, a useful counterpoint to the vape, by contrast protrudes outward from the hand. It is shown, not hidden.
Reusable cartridge e-cigarette sales have decreased from 75.2% to 48%, January 2020 to December 22. Disposable e-cigarette sales, by contrast, have increased from 24.7% to 51.8%, dominating the market, during the same 2-year period.
Another piece of vaping history must not be ignored (though we might like to). With the emergence of the box structured vape came the ability to produce great billows of vapor as they wrapped their lips around the great exhaust pipe of their machines. Much like the cigar to the cigarette, users could perform tricks. They could blow ‘O’s and push a vape bubble through that same ‘O’ and create a vortex of tumbling vapor like a cumulonimbus cloud! Just writing the word v a p e is starting to get to me. It is no surprise that we tried to replace the verb ‘to vape’ with ‘to Juul’. It does soften the blow, slightly…doesn’t it? These vape tricks were recorded and plastered all over YouTube, along with tutorials so you could show your friends how cool you were.
The vape is certainly a part of culture; ‘vape’, ‘vaping’, ‘vaper’, are all part of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s official. But what exactly is its part? Donald Trump poignantly posited, “It’s really not wonderful” in response to the first few vaping related deaths. He is absolutely right. But “wonderful” seems like quite an apt definition for the world of vapes. A world of wonder. If the cigarette was (and is) cool and sensual, mean and dangerous then the vape is the antithesis. It is a world of fluorescent tropical colors and flavors. And when one isn’t enough, the vape is tie dyed, marbled with different shades and tastes like Blueberry Razz. If Willy Wonka ever needed to diversify his business I would suspect he would be pretty successful in the nicotine market. Violet Beauregard could be the name of a flavor and we wouldn’t bat an eye. Elfbar’s creative director and Willy Wonka do have something in common: their ability to market to kids. Entering into a vape shop is like being in a candy shop; it’s quite nostalgic.
It is not, however, just kids that buy them. Adults are shopping in the candy section. The constitution and the basic premise of the vape is such that it releases vapor and not smoke. So people can vape indoors with little obstruction: either the crowd doesn’t notice or just doesn’t care. Vaping has a very high concentration of nicotine too - so it is more addictive. These two factors mean that vapers are vaping all the time. It is a continuous act. A cigarette is distinctly different in this regard. We might go out for a ciggie in a temporary moment that expires and perishes with the stamping of a butt. Even if you are Estelle Leonard, Joey’s chain smoking agent from Friends, a cigarette has a beginning and an end. Each time Estelle lifts the carousel of her cigarette dispenser, there is separation - the marking of moments. The continuous act of vaping is like the sucking of a pacifier, like oversized babies finding our refuge from daily life with multi-colored dummies. Also, putting out a cigarette is emphatic; changing a pod is mechanic.
It is true that smoking and vaping are used to calm nerves - destressors. So it is unsurprising that vaping offers a certain ‘pacification’ but the distinction is in the endlessness of vaping. When you pop out for a smoke, you get your fix and you continue your business without the cigarette in your hand (only the stench follows you). But the vape is constantly there, lingering, constantly cradled by your hand or tucked in the sleeve of your hoodie, just like sucking your thumb or the soft gummy mouthpiece of a water bottle. In this light, the vape has very little chance at being cool. Babies are cute but rarely cool.
No one may want to see you change your pod. But we do want to see you smoke. We might look at photography's relationship with the cigarette and the absence of a relationship with the vape. In a photograph of Christy Turlington for Vogue Italia, the cigarette is nestled between her lips and is imbued with a sensuality equal to the (mimetically shaped) finger-on-the-lips. In Helmut Newton’s Woman into Man for Vogue the cigarette mediates an interaction: the lighting of a lover’s cigarette. Newton’s cigarette demonstrates its place in social and sexual fabric. The cigarette has been goofy (Robin Williams); contemplative (Bob Dylan); sensual (Christy Turlington); and just plain old cool (James Dean).
It is such a part of social fabrics that it is a rite of passage. A frequently asked question at a FUN dinner is, “How old were you when you smoked your first cigarette?” You take off a year or two (or add) depending on who’s at the table. They may follow up with an excitable grin, “Who was it with? Where?” Behind the gardener’s shed at school? Under the bleachers? The alternative, “How old were you when you first started vaping?” is usually met with contempt and, at its best, a suggestion to quit. The moral here: if you are going to do something knowingly harmful, look cool while you do.
I do not suspect that a vape will find itself on the covers of an editorial. It has indeed before: JUUL was advertised on the cover of Vice, but not as an accessory, as a commodity, something to consume, not to wear. The cigarette is an accessory in a photograph just like a hat or eyeshadow: it carries a mutable meaning depending on how it is dressed and who styles it. The vape in TV and film can carry significance though it is quite one dimensional: a subtle signifier of a Gen Z character. The cast of Outer Banks, for example, carrying JUULs says very little about their characters apart from situating the audience in time. When Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) in Training Day smokes a cigarette he smiles, the cigarette locked between his teeth, as he shows us and his trainee (Ethan Hawke) his power. He is too manly, too confident to hold a cigarette between his fingers or lips. He doesn’t get smoke in his eye, he doesn’t even flinch. The cigarette says something about him.
So perhaps, then, the vape never stood a chance at being cool. It never stood a chance against Christy and Bob and Jimmy and Denzel. So it has found its place in the complete opposite of the cigarette. It is a smart way to compete with its competitors. They are, of course, rivals: the cigarette and the vape. The vape occupies another realm of sensibility whilst delivering nicotine faster and harder and ‘funner’ because the cigarette, its opponent, is too well stapled into its own fabric of culture. The vape, then, is successfully uncool