Justin Watson's son begged him to quit smoking. But he had already tried everything—chewing nicotine gum, slapping on the patch, going cold turkey—and none of it worked. Then a friend introduced him to vaping. Eventually, he was able to walk up the stairs without being completely out of breath. Plus, he no longer smelled.
The 36-year-old Pennsylvania resident had no real intention, though, of getting political about his new habit.
This was in 2013, at the height of Barack Obama's presidency, and before JUUL Labs, the vaping behemoth currently estimated to control at least 50 percent of the marketplace in the United States, started to dominate.
Now, six years later, the U.S. finds itself in the middle of a full-blown vaping crisis, as government agencies are struggling to land on a definitive cause for the spate of illnesses that cropped up this summer and has stretched into the fall. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has linked many, though not all, of the nearly 1,500 cases and 33 deaths to black-market THC carts.) The reaction to this frenzy, for the most part, has been a series of vape bans in states across the country, and President Trump has even urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to institute a nationwide ban of flavored vaping products.
For Watson, JUUL's rise came unexpectedly. He said he still has never even met a single person who JUULs. The group of like-minded vapers he flocked to online uses a variety of different rigs and discusses them almost as if they were hobbyists—but also as something more than that. They discovered a device, they believe, that is a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes. But now the whole thing has become political, and so has he.
Vape shop owners and vapers who told their stories to VICE, most of them Republican- or libertarian-leaning, suggested that no cause matters to them more than this one. Like Watson, they had not really been interested in other domestic or foreign affairs in the past; these were not necessarily super political people. Now, some of them vow to be single-issue voters, insisting they will choose a presidential candidate simply based on their vaping stance. It's a possibility, as Axios theorized, that could affect the 2020 election, because a fair number of them reside in places like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states Trump narrowly won in 2016.
"A lot of people are now realizing that the consumers themselves are going to have to stand up for this," Watson said. "I, for one, believe that vaping is worth fighting for."
Do you know anything we should know about vapes, or anything else? You can contact staff writer Alex Norcia securely at email@example.com.
On the surface, vaping can seem like a frivolous enterprise—especially considering, this week alone, Kurds have been displaced, Trump compared the Democrats' impeachment inquiry to a "lynching" on Twitter, and a Brexit deal didn't happen again. But former smokers such as Watson fundamentally think it has provided them with a new lease on life. It sounds silly, but they're under the impression that without vaping they might otherwise be dead. They enjoy citing statistics, like one from Public Health England in 2018, which said vaping was 95 percent less harmful than smoking and could help users ditch the habit. (The United Kingdom has a totally different approach to vaping than the U.S. so that stat does not apply stateside—and in fact, the U.S.'s CDC is advising Americans to stop vaping entirely until more information is known about the source of the vape illnesses.)
Dray Moorman, the founder and CEO of the South Florida–based online shop Mig Vapor who voted for Trump in 2016, said vaping policy would make or break a presidential candidate for him in 2020. He hopes he and fellow vape-activists can somehow persuade the administration to change its stance on the vape ban. He suspects his customer base, much of which skews older, shares a similar sentiment.
"Vaping did save a lot of people," added Nick Orlando, an ex-smoker who transitioned to vaping and owns a handful of shops not far from Tampa. "It's become their niche and their community. For many, it's also become their livelihood, because they were vapers, and then they wanted to help others." (This summer, Orlando estimated that he lost up to 30 percent of his sales following hysteria over vape illness, though Florida as a whole has adopted a relatively measured approach to the epidemic.)
"I'm more political than I've ever been in my entire life," echoed Robert Lucas, a 33-year-old vaper who lives near Ann Arbor, Michigan, and said he voted for Trump and the Republican Party across the board in 2016. "Truly, nothing even compares." (Michigan has instituted a ban on flavored vape products, albeit one that has run into obstacles in court.)
"If this federal flavor ban actually happens," Lucas continued, "everybody I know who vapes and voted for Trump told me they're either going to stay home on Election Day, or vote for a Democrat with normal regulations."
Lucas said he often posts on social media to spread the word, and that he was attempting to educate smokers on the perceived benefits of switching to vaping. Essentially, he comprises part of the "We Vape, We Vote" movement, which has emerged as a hashtag on Twitter. That coalition is not anything brand new, as Matt Culley, a popular vape activist on YouTube, likes to emphasize, because it's been around since at least 2015. It does, however, appear to have ballooned amid vape crackdowns over the past few months.
Recently, Culley called on his fellow vapers to join Twitter. It's a platform he thought would have a wider impact than the insular community—"an echo chamber," he said—they had previously formed on Facebook and Instagram. And they're certainly getting noticed, so much so that newspapers like the Wall Street Journal (and members of Congress) are wondering if a majority of the accounts are actually bots. (That does not necessarily seem to be true.) A rally is planned for next month near the White House, with turnout expected by activists involved to be in the thousands.
"As with anything else, the more threatened people feel, the more active they are," Culley said.
For Lucas's part, he claimed the public and press were "strongly underestimating how many actual vapers there are." (Past estimates have suggested at least 10 million.)
Nonetheless, pollsters and political experts canvassed by VICE were reluctant to offer predictions on the impact vapers might have, though they generally said they would be surprised if it was substantial.
"I tend to think that few voters are single-issue," said Georgy Egorov, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University who has researched elections. "It is the politicians who tend to be."
Egorov, naturally, said he did not anticipate nuanced vaping strategy to be any serious candidate's rallying cry. But other scholars find it all a bit hard to ignore, even if they can't offer a precise prediction.
"I do think that it is rational to fear pissing off vapers based on these numbers," said Amelia Howard, a sociology PhD student at the University of Waterloo in Canada who has been researching vaping. "In Michigan, for example, there are 400,000 vapers. Trump won by 11,000. It wouldn't take that many Michigan vapers to stay home or change their vote to give it to the Democratic candidate."
Still, whether or not you believe vapers would have that much of an influence, particularly on a nationwide scale, the issue is still two-fold for most of them: Not only do they view it as a safer replacement to smoking combustible cigarettes, but the off-the-cuff reaction by local, state, and even the federal government—primarily leaning toward prohibition—has invited the the closure of mom-and-pop vape shops that once flourished. It's the exact opposite, in other words, of what Trump promised during his campaign: to restore the working class and business world to glory.
Although no candidate has spent too much time talking about the issue, Democratic contender Elizabeth Warren has proposed stricter regulations (a tactic almost all of the industry supports), whereas Bernie Sanders hasn't said much about vapes other than using vape bans to point to the absurdity of not banning assault weapons. JUUL, meanwhile, has ramped up its lobbying efforts this past year or so, and has reportedly favored the Democrats with its campaign dollars.
"Vaping has become a culture," said Azim Chowdhury, an attorney who has represented the vaping industry for close to a decade. "[Vapers] have bonded together like any minority group would in the face of what they view as a discriminatory, dehumanizing attack by powerful elitists."
"Someone like Sanders or Yang, candidates who are generally against big corporations," he continued, "should really be taking a good look at this."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.