Forget Cali Sober. Now There's Vape Sober

Inside the massive underground network of people who help each other stay off drugs—and are ready to fight back against vape bans.
illustrated by Hunter French

Keith Fairman spent his childhood visiting his mom in prison.

As he grew up, he fell into drugs and racked up more than 20 felonies, he said. That descent halted in March 2009, when Fairman was imprisoned in Florida's Miami-Dade County jail, where another inmate sparked an epiphany. He told Fairman this would be his life forever—out on the streets and behind bars, a never-ending cycle. The words stuck. After Fairman was released the next day, he deleted most of the contacts from his phone, so he wouldn't be able to find drugs even if he wanted to. He went into a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting that same month. Later, he met his wife, Sarah, in recovery. They've both been sober ever since.


But one vice always lingered for Fairman, and he hoped to get rid of it, too: smoking. It wasn't easy. When he stopped, in 2011, it was pretty much by accident. Fairman and a bunch of his friends from NA had picked up an early e-cigarette product at the local mall, and he watched, in the coming months, as most of them ditched their old habit.

"I knew [vaping] was going to blow up," he said. "You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out."

So Fairman learned how to mix, creating different e-liquids in his condominium. Eventually, he began selling these products, and they became so popular—mostly by word of mouth from those in recovery—that lines would form outside the front door of his condo. Soon, he told Sarah he wanted to officially start his own company, and, in her recollection, she laughed at him but conceded. They borrowed $1,500 from a relative and opened up Diamond Vapor, a vape shop and e-liquid line based in South Florida, where they primarily employ other people in recovery. (The "diamond" in the name—as well as the logo—is an allusion to Fairman's NA program.)

"Because of my priors, I had no way to get a good job myself," Fairman said, adding, "We decided that, if we were going to hire people, we were going to hire people from the recovery community. We wanted to give these kids a chance."

The tenets and atmosphere of NA and other recovery groups now pervade the embattled, energized vaping industry. Dozens of vapers canvassed by VICE suggested a significant portion of those pushing back against potential or extant bans on vape products—a product of a public-health scare over vape-related illnesses and deaths—aren't just protecting what they see as a safer alternative to cigarettes, i.e. harm reduction. Instead, the community has become something of a refuge for people in recovery, one they won't give up without a fight.


"There's a pretty obvious reason [so many vapers are in recovery], and it's that people with chemical dependency issues do often smoke," said Jesse Griffith, who operates a number of vape shops throughout Minnesota and has been sober for 22 years. "And when they make one giant change in life, other ones—like quitting smoking—start to seem much easier."

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Interviewees emphasized that not only has vaping provided an active subculture—complete with mechanical routines (like assembling the intricate parts of vape devices) and sustainable livelihoods in a world that largely shuns the formerly incarcerated and those with dependency issues—but also offered a sense of giving back that boosts their well-being. Mainly, there's the element, they all described, of "doing the next right thing" in NA and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that has carried over to vaping. If vaping can get me off smoking, the logic goes, why can't it also do that for you?

"It's not even about us," said Jay Armstrong, a stand-up comedian from outside Cincinnati, Ohio, who has been in recovery since 2005. (Armstrong also puts in 12 hours a week at a vape shop in northern Kentucky.) "If they do a flavor ban tomorrow, we'll still vape flavors. But that's no good for the smoker who hasn't converted. That's why we're all so passionate and involved: We want to help save everybody else."


The biggest fear lurking over the vaping industry as a whole is if stores will have to shut down amid crystalizing hysteria over teen use and illnesses. Because even though President Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway recently hinted at the possibility of the feds giving an exemption to vape shops—meaning flavored products just wouldn't be available in places like bodegas, gas stations, and chain retailers—many vape and e-liquid manufacturers say they cannot afford to file costly premarket tobacco applications, or PMTAs, to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by next May, a deadline that was moved up by a judge earlier this year.

For those who have strived in this industry, it would be a massive blow—not only to their bank accounts, but to their general guiding principle of harm reduction. Tarl Kendall, for instance, who six years ago was homeless and suffered from alcoholism, got sober, borrowed some cash from his bankruptcy attorney, and currently has vape shops in multiple states across the country. He explained they serve both as places of business and safe spaces for him and others in treatment to hang out.

This arc was mentioned more than once as a version of the American dream.

Mark Avetissian, who co-owns a vape store just north of Los Angeles, opened up shop with a friend he had been introduced to in recovery himself, and, in the beginning, they even hosted AA meetings after-hours. Rick Avila, who's based out of Phoenix, Arizona, met his business partners in recovery, too. Around 2016, they founded what he described as one of the largest nicotine suppliers in the United States. The company, Liquid Nicotine Wholesalers, now offers financial assistance for those seeking treatment, he said.


"For me, it's the recovery first," Avila said. "Everything else comes second. I met so many cool people in this industry because so many of them are in recovery."

With the Trump administration pressured to act—the president has been waffling on federally prohibiting flavored vaping products since September but has not yet made a decision—vapers, vaping activists, and those in the vaping business have been bracing for a long battle that doesn't appear to have much of an end in sight. This past weekend, thousands gathered in D.C. to warn of the political consequences Trump might face should he crack down harshly (a fair percentage of vapers tend to skew Republican, or at least libertarian). But if these vapers who are in recovery know anything, they expressed, it's how to stay vigilant.

Dylan Vogtman started drinking and smoking when he was 13, and not long after discovered opioids and began dealing weed. He was arrested and ultimately spent a few months in jail at the age of 19, having to forcibly detox in his cell, he recalled. He was "stone sober," he said, but within a week or so of getting out, he was back to drinking and hustling. It wasn't until a lawyer asked him if he had a drug problem, and he saw the look on his mom's face when he answered the question ("she knew," Vogtman said, "but it was just that look") that he sought to make some changes. Following a few months in rehab, Vogtman moved into a halfway house. There, another person in recovery introduced him to vaping, and in time, while working on an orchard in Pennsylvania, he met another group of people in recovery who were opening a nearby vape shop. Vogtman would soon spend his lunch breaks learning everything he could about building the devices. He was essentially an apprentice, and now he runs his own e-liquid line.


"I'm a felon," Vogtman, who lives in Maryland, said. "It wasn't easy for me to get a job. Vaping did everything for me. Even building my own vape, it was something for me to do with my hands. There was innovation involved. I had to use my brain."

Vaping became a point of pride for Vogtman—his hobby and his identity. Likewise for Erik Deangelis, a 43-year-old illustrator and e-liquid manufacturer based on Long Island who goes by VinylVpr on Twitter. For decades, Deangelis had lived in Brooklyn, bartending and playing in a band. He has been sober for around seven years, since he was 35, and gained a fanbase for his satirical drawings criticizing the government's reaction to the vaping issue. (He has more than 25,000 followers on Instagram.)

"Because of my presence on social media, vapers will slide into my DMs and tell me about their struggles with quitting drinking," Deangelis said. "The persecution, that gets all the media attention—when, really, vaping created this underground support system for me and so many others. It definitely helped keep me clean."

Obviously, he doesn't want that environment to disappear.

"I came out of recovery, after drinking, and I was collecting vinyl records," he continued. "Then, I was running, like, 10 miles a day, but I was still smoking. It felt dumb. You have this sort of compulsive energy after treatment to do something."

That energy, Deangelis said, isn't going anywhere.

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