Forget the year of the tiger, the year free from COVID lockdowns (at least in Australia) or the hedonistic year where everyone played catch-up. 2022 is the year of the vape.
While it might sound futile, uninteresting and downright stupid, vaping has dug its claws into the heart of Australian culture as well as culture on a global scale. In fact, you could argue it’s become a culture of its own and a signifier of the In-Group (just as the cigarette was to the leather jacketed, thunderbird-types of the 60s or the grunge, behind-the-bike shed alt-rockers of the 90s).
Most concerningly, it’s an addiction many are finding hard to shake.
This year, VICE started its coverage of vapes focusing on the climate: “Here’s What to do With You Empty Disposable Vapes”. Back then, vapes had been around for years, but it quickly became apparent that, in 2022, the cigarette was well and truly on its way out.
A few months before, as the use of vapes ticked upwards, the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) had made the flimsy and somewhat performative announcement banning the importation of nicotine e-cigarettes into Australia. Unless, of course, they were for a prescription. Did that work? No. Vapes were still readily available to those that knew where to look (in other words, every single corner store in Australia).
Our coverage was inspired by our own reporter, Arielle Richards, whose full-brimmed drawer of colourful, plastic, nicotine-filled tubes became a focal point of discussion. Why? Well, it wasn’t just her. People found it relatable.
In May, having just moved from Sydney to Melbourne, I had a sudden realisation: Why did everybody vape in Sydney… and why did everyone smoke ciggies in Melbourne? So I wrote about it. Intended as a piss-take and slightly nonsensical article about the nicotine habits of users in two different cities, it was received either in complete agreement or denial. The takeaway: vapes and cigarettes were in competition. And we’d soon learn that vapes were in the lead.
Reporting on vapes trickled through various news outlets – sirening the health precarities of vaping, of teens getting addicted, of vape detectors being installed in school toilets – and the subject of vapes in the office became popular fodder for conversation. You could see the culture taking shape through discussions with friends and colleagues: This person was trying to quit; this person failed; this person went 6-weeks; gunpods were “elite”. However, with more negative coverage came more initiative to leave the habit behind. But it was hard to stop.
Halfway through the year, the NSW government proudly boasted a $1 million seizure of nicotine vapes. They were “cracking down” with a “zero-tolerance approach” that introduced heavy fines for distributors. But the effect of that approach was nowhere to be seen, and if anything, vape use became more obvious: at parties, as litter in the streets, at after work drinks. Because the war on vapes, just like the war on drugs, wasn’t going to work.
As VICE AU’s Brad Esposito wrote, “the government’s continued pride in disrupting the burgeoning illegal vape industry impresses about as much as the Australian Police excitedly celebrating massive busts of weed or coke while just about everyone with an iPhone and a semi-functioning brain can get both delivered, to their door, in a 2-hour window”.
And it was true – if not a little exaggerated. You can actually get your hands on vapes a lot quicker than that.
At one point in the year, a Four Corners investigation on vapes aired on ABC. The corresponding article detailed a journalist slinking into a car with a “dealer”. They cited buying a vape off the “blackmarket”. Was it satire? No. Didn’t they realise that all you really had to do was walk 100m in any city and you’d find one, no dealers needed?
In fact, jump on any social media platform and you can buy them in bulk. That was especially true for my TikTok FYP, where chinese manufacturers would disguise links to websites behind ASMR and brain soothing, dopamine-inducing videos of vape creation in factories. It was tactful yet sneaky. Though it went against TikTok guidelines, it became obvious that there were ways around it.
But then the ultimate question arose: Now that everyone was doing it, and now that everyone was hooked (including me), were vapes worse for you than ciggies? And what was actually in a vape?
So we decided to send a few of the most popular vapes on the market to Dr. Celine Kelso at the School of Chemistry and Molecular BioScience at The University of Wollongong. While she said that vaping was better for you than smoking cigarettes (is it really?) – apparently a vape has less chemicals – she also said vapes were not devices that were successful in helping you quit nicotine.
In fact, vapes had the potential to have a higher nicotine concentration in one puff than a whole cigarette. They also contained vegetable glycerine, propylene glycol, and a bunch of flavourings and coolants. At present, no one really knows what the long term effects of those ingredients are on the body.
But where are we today with vapes? And how did we get here?
In Victoria, since 2019, the amount of vape users has doubled. (So much for Sydney = Vapes, Melbourne = Cigarettes). The federal government has also, in recent weeks, started discussions on potential reforms that would see tighter border controls and the changing of vape packaging (much like they’ve done with cigarettes). Vaping has well and truly embedded itself into Australian culture.
Often, if you ask someone why or when they started, the story is always the same. “It was a couple of years ago”, “I was a social smoker and then switched to vapes”, “I started at a party”, “my friends were doing it”.
Sadie* told us that it was because of peer pressure. “I got a new job and wanted to make more friends, so I bought my own vape and would go outside with them and haven't really stopped since.”
“I was never really addicted to ciggies but can't seem to shake off the vape.”
Ava* started vaping because a club in New Zealand was handing out free vapes, and they “didn’t know at the time that vapes had nicotine in it so I got addicted.”
“I have tried quitting many times,” she said. “It doesn’t last for too long because it’s a very social thing.”
Ava also pointed to their accessibility. Unlike a cigarette, which has a distinctive smell and can’t be lit inside, vapes can be covert. The other day I found myself in a smoke free area of the pub, taking a hit while no one was looking. The vapour can disappear faster than you can blink and, if it does smell, it’s an indistinctive odour that barely intrudes on others existence.
“You can just whip it out from your bag indoors,” Ava said.
“It’s not a judgy thing to use, cause cigarettes are gross and they smell funny and vapes don’t really do that. They don’t make your hair smell like shit.”
It makes quitting all the more problematic. It’s the accessibility of a large nicotine dose and the ability to pull it out anywhere.
These days, if you look at social media platforms like TikTok, you might see a girl hooked up to a ventilator warning you never to touch the devil sticks. If that’s not enough persuasion and you’re slightly vain like me (and you spend hundreds per year on skincare) maybe a video of a doctor describing how it fucks up your skin is more to your taste. Even the algorithms see vapes as viral content.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway here (other than that you should probably put down your vape right now. Yes, you, the person about to take a hit) is just how quickly vaping has spread across the world. And how attached it is to youth culture. It’s an epidemic of our generation. The 70s acid trip of the 2020s.
And how long will it last? Who knows. But one thing is certain: this has been the year of the vape. And it might not be the last.