How Vaping Became The Adult Version of Game Boys

07.02.19

My other working title for this piece was, “How Vaping Became The Adult Verson of Tamagotchis”. And then it was, “How Vaping Became The Adult Version of Baby G Watches”.

But who remembers Game Boys?! Mine was Barney-the-dinosaur-purple and I used it exclusively to play Super Mario. Ah yes, the obsessions of our youth. It was a simpler time. True story: I went to school with a girl who started collecting rubber eraser shavings in an empty pencil case and within two weeks my entire year group was doing it (“FOR WHAT THOUGH MADELEINE?”, my mum would scream as I ransacked the stationary drawer in her house). To this day I still couldn’t tell you.

Today, our generation has been plagued by a new obsession: sucking flavoured nicotine juice out of a USB drive. Vape culture has been on the rise for close to four years now, and it’s hard to pin point exactly where it all started. Maybe it was Leonardo DiCaprio being photographed vaping in a custom Armani tuxedo at the 2016 Screen Actors Guild Awards. Or was it at Men’s Fashion Week later that year, when the designers of General Idea sent models down the runway carrying chrome vapes made by Innokin? Fast forward to 2017, Dave Chapelle casually puffed on a Juul throughout his entire Netflix special, and six months after that 17-year-old model Kaia Gerber posted a four second video of her inhaling on a vape pen to her Instagram. The model however quickly deleted the video after she was reminded (likely by her agent) that the legal age to purchase and smoke a vape in most US states is 18.

Which brings me to the first of the many scandals that have plagued the manufacturers of Bella Hadid’s favourite mini spaceship: the kids. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, vaping has increased by nearly 80% among high schoolers and 50% among middle schoolers since 2017, propelled by both the size and convenience of the devices (small enough to hide in a pencil case alongside your eraser shavings), as well as the popularity of flavoured nicotine liquids like “banana pudding” and “pina colada”. The later of which became so addictive among American youth that it had to be banned across the country. TTC reader Sarah, who teaches at a private school in Auckland, said the rise in students vaping has reached such critical levels that her school was forced to update their campus policy to state the consequences of vaping on-site, “These are students who have never smoked before prior to vaping, and when I query them about it they say, ‘Well would you rather I smoke cigarettes?’.” She raises another interesting point: the class of consumers who weren’t smokers originally, like TTC reader Rachel. Rachel was a non-smoker who started vaping at 19 because she “though it was cool. Six months later I had developed a full blown nicotine addiction that lead to me becoming a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for two years.” And this is the concern for parents and legislators; that vaping is hyping nicotine for a new generation and providing a gateaway to cigarettes and other drugs rather than a path away from them. In fact, a CNN investigation published last year outed Juul Labs, who owns over 70% of the e-cigarette market, for encouraging (and at times paying for) social media influencers to promote their nicotine products to followers.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging the upside of this new trend. Firstly, for those unaware, a vape is an electronic device that heats up flavoured nicotine to create an inhalable aerosol. They produce neither the smoke nor the tar that a cigarette does when tobacco is burning, meaning they provide the same nicotine hit without the carcinogenic side effects. Juuls, for example, offer their nicotine pods in 5 percent solutions – roughly the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes. TTC reader Lucy is happy she switched to vaping, “I was sick of the odour cigarettes left on my clothes and that horrible after-taste, plus I love that I can get all the benefits of nicotine without the toxic chemicals.” Although she admits it’s the nicotine that has made it a much more addictive habit, “I went from social smoking once a fortnight when I was with friends, to vaping every ten minutes, every single day.” There’s also financial benefits; one of my girlfriends recently purchased a vape to help wean herself off cigarettes and estimates that she’s saving over $30 a week. And then there are the more nuanced benefits, like for those who suffer from anxiety and depression, like Sophie, “I’m 18 and started vaping to help ease the symptoms of my depression. It helps me to relax and I now notice that when I don’t have my vape I slip back into old depressive habits.” 

But how much do we really know about e-cigarettes? We’re well aware of the proven links between cigarettes and lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease, but the data around vapes remains foggy at best. On the one hand, vaping undoubtedly poses less risk to an individual’s health than combustible tobacco, but on the other hand we can’t ignore the chemicals hiding in e-liquid like Diacetyl (the chemical responsible for the buttery and creamy flavour options) which has been found to scar lung tissue and lead to shortness of breath, wheezing and symptoms similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Not to mention the metals coming off the device’s heating coils – researchers at John Hopkins University recently found significant levels of lead and arsenal in the aerosol of refillable vapes.

As for my assessment of these sexy little USB’s, I fall somewhere in the middle. E-cigarettes are like all vices: completely fine when consumed in moderation, problematic when abused. But of course, that’s exactly what our generation has a habit of doing. We abuse. We bandwagon. Just look at any of the gimmicks we’ve jumped on in the past two decades, from Furbies to fidget spinners, Juicy Couture tracksuits to wireless Apple earbuds.

Julia Felsenthal, a beauty writer for Vogue, summed it up perfectly when she wrote about her observations of vape culture among New York’s elite: “A journalist I admire casually brandished her Juul, taking drags of crème brûlée–flavored e-liquid as we discussed the #MeToo movement…she makes it look cool, like a latter-day, bookish James Dean.”

See? Chic.