The question of the health effects of vaping and its long-touted efficacy as a tool to quit smoking usually follow any non-vaper discussion of the lifestyle. In every snazzy bar/lounge-style smoke shop and on all of the colorful e-juice labels, you can still find the sober black text on white background label warning that nicotine is an addictive substance not suitable for minors. In spite of this, there is a persistent idea that vaping is “healthier” than cigarettes, and can even help cigarette smokers quit smoking by using a safer alternative to their nicotine fix. Vaping Daily, a major vape information website, has several “quit smoking” guides that make similar claims about vaping, but one can easily see links for “the best starting vapes” on the same page as these guides, so clearly there is a financial incentive to push that narrative. There is lip service to “cognitive behavioral therapy” and other discipline techniques to help fight addiction, but it doesn’t take long to find a link to a $70 vape mod that promises “superior cloud volume.” Definitive answers from researchers about the health impact compared to tobacco are scant, given how relatively new vaping still is. What can be said is that younger people are very much drawn to it, and any conclusions that can be drawn about their health have to factor in their often overworked and underpaid lifestyles. qnotes spoke to a couple of young men in Charlotte and asked them about their vaping habits and health.
Peter is a 21-year-old pizza delivery driver who works night shifts. He has been vaping for at least two years, and frequently does so at work while on deliveries. His vape is a sleek, black-with-gold-trim device with angular surfaces like a cut gem. It looks like an iPhone that Louis Vuitton might have designed, but Peter apparently paid less than a $100 for the whole system. Peter says that he’s never smoked cigarettes, and that he got into vaping both as a “social thing” and as a way to help him stay awake and focused when he couldn’t justify consuming more caffeine tablets and energy drinks. He works long hours, and it’s not uncommon for him to get overtime. He admits that he does not have the healthiest habits, but does not buy into the idea that vaping nicotine is especially bad for him when it doesn’t have the tar and other carcinogens present in cigarettes.
“My vape is on me as much as my phone is. I usually take a hit when I’m on a delivery.” He often complains about his back and joints. He jokingly says that he “needs new bones.” All of his roommates, who work either food service or warehouse jobs, vape and have usually taken smoke breaks when they’re at work. One of his roommates is also a manager at the pizza shop, and it isn’t uncommon for him to decompress from busy rushes or rude customers with a five to 10 minute break just to vape and watch videos on his phone.
Mike is a 20-year-old engineering student who works two, 10-hour breakfast shifts at a Bojangles’ to pay rent while he is in school. He started vaping when he saw his older brother do it. He described being fascinated with both the smell and volume of vapor, and soon began to build his own vapes from parts he ordered online. He keeps spare cotton, coils and a line of various e-liquid bottles in a small plastic drawer on the table where he does his engineering homework. He is a natural tinkerer and has a passing knowledge of cars. From rural Western North Carolina, Michael has grown up around other smokers. He himself has been an adventurous smoker over the years, smoking everything from Black & Milds to pipe tobacco, but he “refuses” to smoke cigarettes. “I have asthma, and I really do think that vaping helps me breath easier.” He vapes a low dosage of nicotine, and will even vape with nicotine-free juice if he enjoys the flavor.
Vaping has been around long enough in the popular culture to develop its own culture footprint, so much so that “vaping” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” in 2014. Video tutorials, explaining vaping terminology, price ranges, e-liquid (or e-juice) flavors, tricks and other facets of the vaping lifestyle, can be found all over the internet. Although traditional head shops like Charlotte’s own Infinity’s End sell vape merchandise, the popularity of vaping has come to the point where shops like Charlotte Vapes and KURE, which cater exclusively to e-cigarette and vape users, are starting to become serious competition for the nearly 50-year-old local chain.
Vaping may still have efficacy as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, but that concern is just one facet of the industry and culture of vaping. Vape pens with small tanks that take e-liquid at higher concentrations for more infrequent puffs remain the go-to for people more familiar with traditional tobacco smoking. Young people are vaping for all kinds of reasons, and could probably make due with more sleep and water instead of quitting. Between midterms, rent and night shifts, their vaping habits can’t really be seen as the primary indicator of good or bad health. It isn’t adding years to their lives, but one would be hard pressed to get them to stop.