It's a beautiful sunny Saturday and I'm headed into the cavernous belly of the ExCeL centre to experience something pretty close to my personal idea of hell: Vape Jam 3. Back for the third year running, the UK's largest vaping convention is a weekend of unadulterated smoke-filled fun for those who have forsaken fags for fat clouds.
As I enter the convention centre at the opposite end, the first thing I see is a sign warning punters not to smoke – or, you would imagine, vape. Nonetheless, I can already see a cloud of smoke in the distance, and by the time I'm closing in on the entrance to Vape Jam, visibility has been considerably lowered by clouds escaping from the venue.
I'm expecting some pretty awful people, but immediately notice a surprisingly large amount of normal-looking women and begin to wonder if vaping has gone mainstream. A few moments later I realise there is also a wedding convention being held today, and that the ladies are all headed towards elaborate floral arrangements and not to try out the latest in e-liquid technology.
As the women turn off I'm left walking behind a man in a gilet and red Beats by Dre headphones, and five dudes in ill-fitting cargo shorts who have the distinct air of a vaping stag-do about them. That's more like it.
You might wonder how one could make a whole expo out of vaping, but it turns out it's pretty easy: EDM remixes of Drake songs soundtrack a four-sided screen showing hot girls in small shorts blowing vape rings, while over 100 exhibitors tout their vaping hardware, liquid and merchandise. Everywhere, people are sucking on their electronic dummies.
The thick vapour and its sickly sweet taste makes me choke and reminds me of when I was 16 and spent my weekends habitually smoking shisha on Edgware Road. After completing a bewildered lap around the convention, in which I stick out like a sore thumb, being the only person without a vape, I decide to get involved. I head over to the nearest stand – a mass of sweet-smelling smoke and neon-coloured cartoons – and am invited to try a new fruity cola flavour. I choke on it and get caught on camera doing so. Vape Jam 1 – 0 me.
As I talk to more people, it becomes increasingly clear that we are at a turning point in the vape world. Having established themselves as a legitimate industry and alternative to smoking in the last ten years, vendors are now fighting against increased regulation. There is a palpable sense of persecution; a lot of the talk centres around a distrust of regulatory bodies such as the FDA (USA) and the TPD (EU), as well as media distortion around the culture and the "truth" about vaping. There's something a bit Brexity about the whole endeavour; indeed, lots of people tell me they hope that Brexit will mean a brighter future for vaping away from the EU's bureaucracy.
Along the stands advertising elderflower martini flavour e-liquids "for the missus" and guys in lab coats blowing vape smoke rings, there's also Vapers in Powers and the NNA (New Nicotine Allowance), a charity that campaigns for tobacco harm reduction. Judy Gibson from INNCO (International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations) gives a speech railing against the tobacco industry, Big Pharma, money and lies.
For all the theatrics, and my personal deeply-held belief that vaping vanilla custard flavoured e-liquid is like smoking for babies, many people here say they used to be heavy smokers and have made the switch to what they feel is a healthier alternative. As vaping contains no tar or tobacco, vaping advocates argue that it is virtually harmless – and if not harmless, certainly less harmful than smoking cigarettes. Everyone I speak to is eager to tell me about their past as a heavy smoker and how they feel a million times better since they made the switch.
I get chatting to an exhibitor who has flown over from California for the convention, who tells me the recent changes in US regulations on vaping have had a huge impact on the industry. Following complaints by the tobacco industry about the lower rate of tax on vape products, the FDA has (pretty unfairly) decided to tax them the same as tobacco, despite the fact there is no tobacco in vapes and the industry is formed of mostly small entrepreneurs and not, say, corporate monoliths like Marlboro. A big part of the fight seems to be getting this difference recognised, and everyone is adamant that any possible harm from vaping is incomparable to that from cigarettes. According to one of the NNA representatives at the convention, vaping is "95 percent safer than cigarettes – and the other 5 percent is just to allow for possible unknown risk from the chemicals in the flavoured e-liquids".
It's obvious, though, that to most people here, vaping is not just a better alternative to Nicorette gum. Vaping is a subculture, and like any subculture, it has its fanatics. I head to the "modding station", which is where I'm told the most expensive and cutting-edge vape technology is to be found. It is here, among one of a kind hand-made stabilised wood vapes that cost the better part of £1,000, that I find a man for whom vape is life. He is looking to purchase one of these superior vapes, despite currently having four vapes on his person. He estimates his vape collection to come in at between 30 and 40 in number and £10,000 in total spend. He also hosts a vaping podcast. I figured he'd be the best person to ask the question that is on all our minds, all of the time: has your vape ever exploded? I'm met with a look of contempt. "That only happens if you're an idiot." The superior vape exhibitor also steps in: "Put it this way. Blaming your vape for exploding is like blaming your car for crashing. They don't explode if you use them properly."
Perhaps due to my own short-sightedness, I'm surprised at how genuinely diverse the vaping scene is. Although undeniably male-dominated, the attendees of Vape Jam 3 come from all walks of life: spotty college students, white men with tribal tattoos, groups of Sikh men, a Muslim couple, a lot of people who seem to have floated over from Camden Lock. That said, with a heavy reliance on using girls with big boobs and small shirts to sell their products, and e-liquid names such as Ghetto Juice (grape drank flavour) and Jungle Fever, it's safe to say that the world of vaping can be just as problematic as the world outside of it. And after three hours spent inhaling second-hand strawberry and banana-flavoured vapour, I'm ready to return to the outside world and nurse my headache.
So there we have it. Probably better for you than smoking, but still kind of lame. Let's try again next year.