On Saturday, Donald Trump took off on Marine One and flew over a crowd of vapers who promptly began shouting at the helicopter. The president was on his way to the University of Alabama football game, where he was likely seeking spectators who wouldn't boo him. But what many of those gathered below sought was simple: They were vapers, and they needed Trump to notice them.
They might have appreciated it if some aide leaned over to the president and explained that smoking combustible cigarettes was the number one cause of preventable death in the world, and that they believed vaping to be a safer alternative. They wanted him to know that they did not condone teen use, and that they disdained embattled vape giant JUUL Labs for its marketing. Most importantly, they wanted him to reconsider a federal ban of e-liquid flavors, one he had called for weeks ago and just days earlier suggested was imminent. They wanted him to let them vape cake. And cinnamon roll, and bubble gum, and custard.
Though the "We Vape We Vote" rally, as it was officially dubbed, had been arranged months prior, it couldn't have come at a better time. Along with the Trump administration's plans to regulate e-cigarettes, a series of states (including Michigan, Oregon, and Washington) have already banned flavored vaping products—though some of these bans have been held up in court. Massachusetts has sought to prohibit all e-cigarettes, period, and San Francisco residents upheld their own ban last week in the first major test for vaping at the polls.
Vapers have grown accustomed to bad news lately, as well as to patiently waiting. The gathering had already been delayed by an hour, until 1 PM, as the president needed to leave; the Ellipse, the 52-acre park where their rally was being held, essentially borders the White House grounds and was therefore temporarily closed. Those in attendance, many of whom had driven hours or flown in that morning, were forced to wait across the street, near the Washington Monument. Some had brought their children. They were anxious to start. Naturally, almost everybody had a sign. They had banners with edicts, almost like mad libs—I quit "X" years ago by vaping "X" flavor—and, as you might expect, ridiculous slogans. A poster near the front of the audience, for instance, read "Vapers Lives Matter." Another: "Mango Is Not a Crime."
In the era of crowd exaggerations, it's important to be careful with estimates. But the permit for the protest capped out at 2,500, organizers said, and they believed it had potentially surpassed that by 1,000 or so. It's a fair guess. The group was predominantly white and included a lot of couples. Jeff Lawson, a 53-year-old firefighter from Michigan, was there with his wife, who never had a cigarette habit. (Lawson ditched the smokes, he said, with a vape flavor called "Strawberry Chill.") Dylan Vogtman was there with his girlfriend, Taylor Cage, who he had been introduced to while working in the vape industry. The psychiatrist Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute and a lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine, lingered behind the stage, with fellow academics and political types.
Passers-by seemed to have no idea what to think, as they pulled up on rented bikes and electric scooters to snap photos, survey the scene, and whisper about whether or not vaping was worthy of radicalism. Vapor clouds billowed into the air, and there were constant chants of "We Vape We Vote." There was one guy strutting around in a "Jeffrey Epstein Didn't Kill Himself" T-shirt. If nothing else, the vapers hoped, theirs was a remarkable spectacle.
But this wasn't just about agitprop or camaraderie. Consumer advocacy groups, vape store owners, tax-reform activists, and run-of-the-mill vapers had a rather rough go this summer, with a spate of vaping-related illnesses and a vague hysteria over what exactly brought about 2,000-plus cases and dozens of deaths. So they turned out in force in the country's capital with a clear message: "Vaping isn't a lifestyle. It's life or death."
From their perspective, the issues are straightforward: Flavored products, what the feds and so many of the state regulators are focusing on, are what helped them kick traditional cigarettes in the first place, and now they fear them being taken away because concerned parents—whom they sympathize with—are worried about their children's nicotine dependency. Meanwhile, a federal ban on flavored vaping products could also cause many stores and manufacturers to shutter.
But even if they represent a decent portion of the population, especially in swing states—a 2018 survey found that there were nearly 11 million vapers in the United States—one question did remain: What could actually be done next? Where do vapers go from here, and how do they weaponize this cultural moment—equal parts political insurgency and public-health crisis—without just barking into the sky at a man whom many of them once admired?
Generally speaking, vaping might seem farcical or collectively small, as opposed to something massively catastrophic like climate change—even some vape advocates concede this. But it does incorporate almost every major talking point heading into the 2020 presidential election: The crisis shows the ongoing failures of a greedy private healthcare system that doesn't incentivize harm reduction, the struggling working class attempting to save livelihoods (by keeping vape shops open), and the wealth gap and racial divide (people who can afford to travel can get their vape fix even if they live in a city with a ban; banning menthol could be a blow to Black vapers, too). So while it might seem one-note, and while most vapers will admit that they had been politically radicalized at the prospect of losing what had gotten them off smoking, the recent reaction to vaping shows what often goes wrong in the U.S. and why.
"Elizabeth Warren would save vaping, and she doesn't even know it," said John Nathan, a 30-year-old and one of the owners of the vape company 80V E-Liquid based in Massachusetts. He proclaimed himself to be the sole progressive at the rally, and even had a faded anarchist tattoo near his thumb.
"We need to remove money from politics," he added. "Public health needs to be based in science, and nothing else."
The proceedings were formally kicked off by a man belting out the National Anthem. The vapers held their hands over their hearts.
The whole affair might sound goofy, but it was relentlessly sincere. About 20 speakers gave speeches in five-minute blocks, and each shared the same sentiment: Vaping saved lives. Vaping—and vaping flavors they liked—was their right, and they would do anything to prevent that from changing, including reconsidering who they would vote for next November. (A majority of vapers VICE spoke to had a history of voting Republican.) For many, it was their first foray into political engagement other than at the ballot box. The veneer was hostile, a warning to Trump. You have a lot to lose if you don't please us.
But it also recalled an AA meeting.
"I always wanted to see this community come together," said Kaylee Poff, a 22-year-old vape shop employee from South Carolina. "Now it's finally happening."
Here, there was the distinct opportunity for consumers and store owners to mingle with YouTube celebrities like Grimm Green and Matt Culley (even vapers have their idols) and industry insiders like Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association (AVA) and Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association (VTA). At one point, someone was overheard suggesting prominent activists design an "advocacy calendar"—"instead of, like, women in bikinis, it's you guys." There were no takers.
"This issue, it just deserves better than it's gotten," said Amelia Howard, a PhD student in sociology at the University of Waterloo in Canada who researches the topic.
As Howard suggested, there was a sense of optimism, sure, and a willingness to fight, but there was also a lingering suspicion of doom. Showing up in such numbers was great, the advocates knew. But a month lingered in the back of vapers' minds: May 2020, when manufacturers are set to decide whether to file the costly and extensive premarket tobacco application, or PTMA, to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they got away without for several years. For them, that's truly when their world could end—or not.
"We just can't afford it," said Jessica Crane, a 42-year-old who owns and operates a vape shop with her husband in Sussex, New Jersey, and creates her own e-liquids with names like "Fear Mongering," "Robber Barons," and "Conspiracy," among others. "Just filing the application itself would put us out of business."
"The PMTA, it's too soon," echoed Nick Orlando, who owns some shops not far from Tampa, Florida. "It's unattainable," he continued. "I'll only carry the [products] that pass the PMTA in my shops. It's already a headache."
Not that long ago, they assumed that they had more time—in 2017, the former commissioner of the FDA, Scott Gottleib, granted e-cigarette makers a five-year extension to submit their paperwork. But in July a federal judge fast-tracked the date to May of next year. Recently, especially amid so many deaths and illnesses, Trump has also faced repeated pressure to act. The great irony, of course, is that JUUL, the powerhouse that controls a substantial part of the market in the U.S, is in the best position to meet that FDA deadline, all but guaranteeing Big Tobacco's ongoing domination in the vaping market. For that reason alone, the company was not exactly a favorite of the assembled masses.
The past few weeks have all seemed like "a never-ending roller coaster," Gunther Wallen, a 52-year-old vape shop manager from Greenville, South Carolina, said in front of the Washington Monument. First, there was a report that the Trump administration had altered its thinking on prohibiting mint and menthol, a useless concession for almost any company besides JUUL, given the variety of inventory the rest of the industry sells. Then, there was discussion of a vape shop exemption, which might keep flavored products off the shelves of gas stations, convenience stores, and chain retailers. Trump is also said to be entertaining the idea of raising the legal vaping age to 21.
"The vape shop exemption is a fantastic idea," Wallen said. "We should treat [vape shops] like liquor stores. I ID every single customer that comes into my store. Even the 80- and 90-year-olds."
But there's another problem. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), announced that it had discovered a "very strong culprit"—a suspect that has been floated in the past—for the vaping-linked illnesses: vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent that has been found in black-market THC cartridges. So although many vapers skew libertarian and insist the government should largely stay out of their lives—there were several "live free or die" tattoos in the crowd—the lung injuries and fatalities might well have been prevented or at least curtailed had the feds placed stricter regulations on cannabis.
Maybe in another country.
Guy Bentley, the director of consumer freedom at the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation who was raised in England and still dressed as if he were there (he had on a tweed-looking suit jacket and was perhaps the only person at the rally with a tie), explained that in the U.S. there's a puritanical insistence that quitting—whatever vice it is—should be as painful as possible.
"I wouldn't have quit smoking without vaping," he said while in fact vaping. "[Critics have said] that vaping was originally meant to make using nicotine socially acceptable again," he added. "That it was meant to renormalize tobacco."
It hasn't. The U.S. is even finally—if slowly—moving toward acceptance of safe-injection sites in some cities. But the increased social ostracization of cigarette smoking since the 90s has carried over into the vaping realm, and it has been met with a remarkable cynicism advocates say you won't notice toward virtually any other drug. It's enough, perhaps, to bankrupt a fair portion of the industry.
Around 4 PM, a group of college-age, Vineyard Vines–wearing students were standing on the corner of the road. They couldn't believe the sight of the vape crowd, and they couldn't resist discussing how stupid they thought it was—that so many people would waste their time, on an otherwise perfectly serviceable Saturday, shouting and hollering about e-cigarettes and the large tech company that allegedly ruined everything for vapers. There was Syria, after all, and the One Percent, and immigration, and the California wildfires. There was just so much more to do.
Then, after they were done bemoaning the attempt at activism, they rented Uber scooters with their iPhones and sped off into the city.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.