Last year, we sent one of our writers to the UK's first ever vaping expo. This year, as the expo continues to grow, we sent another writer to see how it was getting on.
Readers, I have to admit something before we go on this journey together, and it is something no journalist should ever admit: ignorance. Before I went to the Vaper Expo (part deux) at Birmingham's NEC exhibition centre on Friday, I had absolutely no idea just how big this vaping business was. I didn't know there were so many domestic businesses, e-liquid creators, vape pen wholesalers, silly flavours and die-hard vape fans here in the UK. I was astounded.
But that's not the only thing I learned while inhaling no less than 60 different sickly vape flavours. I also learned an important lesson about acceptance, humanity and nicotine poisoning.
Let me first get an uncomfortable truth out of the way: vaping is not cool. Though it may try through a million different avenues to appear cool, it just isn't. It's weird, because smoking is cool, right? John Wayne scowling and giving himself cancer looks great. John Wayne scowling and puffing on a single coil atomiser filled with apple e-liquid is... kinda lame. Mad Men wouldn't be the same if Don Draper was in his office blowing thick plumes of blueberry muffin-flavoured vape smoke.
But I think people conflate vaping being uncool with the people who do it being dickheads. This is certainly an easy opinion to have; there is something about the act of vaping that makes vapers look like exhibitionists. The dense clouds of vapour that emerge from the orifices of users is a kind of peacocking. It says, "Look how much of this hot vapourised liquid I can fit inside my head. Cool, right?"
Unfortunately, the answer is: no.
Arriving at the NEC, there was a light fog in front of the entrance to the expo itself. The vaping was clearly well underway – so much so that it was seeping out of the venue and catching the light of the beautiful spring day. It wasn't a real pea-souper – vapour doesn't have the conviction to linger thick in the air like smoke does – but it was enough to make me think my glasses were a bit dirty.
Turned out that the day I was attending was a trade show, predominantly for hand-shakers and business types to swap email addresses and the like.
This guy's stall might have been my favourite – it was just a load of glass display cases with price tags inside them. On first glance I thought he just didn't really get it, or had been robbed blind, but then I realised he was selling the display cases. He was sat reclined around them not giving a fuck, seemingly bemused and un-entertained by the madness going on around him.
And, to me, it was madness. As I said, I really had no idea that this vape thing had become so big. Some of the production value of these stands was staggering: gigantic pillars of vape, companies going all out to impress.
My only experience with the normalisation of this phenomenon had been one or two vape cafes on a couple of high streets, most of them looking empty on a regular day. Yet here it was made quite clear that vaping is a Big Fucking Deal, especially to those who indulge in it.
I tried a few of the flavours, going from stall to stall. I'm not really a regular smoker, so inhaling lungful after lungful of piping hot vapour every five minutes got taxing very quickly. I was also a little dismayed at the variety of flavours on offer. Everything was sweet. It was all donuts, cakes, piña coladas, raspberries and bananas, all of them blends and complex flavours. It almost became a competition to see if you could correctly identify the correct flavours that had been imbued in the liquid. One vendor told me that the main reason the flavours were all so sweet is that the market is led by America, and we all know what they're like with their "candies". Most of them, though, had an unpleasant base flavour that was common throughout the ones I tasted.
This one, the milk flavoured one, was fucking gross.
One crew to buck the trend was Vampire Vape, a British company that makes and distributes e-liquids and accessories. They had an e-liquid called "dawn", which was very light on flavour and didn't make me feel like I was being waterboarded with a bucket of melted pick'n'mix. They were also a load of absolute sweethearts, whose eyes lit up when you tried their product and attempted to guess what concoction they'd put together.
Say what you like about vapers, but you can't fault their enthusiasm. Though a lot of the people at the expo told me they started vaping to quit smoking – it having saved their life, as some put it – it's quite clearly a lot deeper than that. It's a hobby, the same as painting model aeroplanes, or flying drones, or pigeon fancying. And as a hobby, and a community, you could do a lot worse. Everyone there was lovely, and I felt bad about thinking they would all be a bunch of fucking losers.
Sure, there were a couple of unsavoury aspects to the proceedings. The "Miss Vapor" competition was something a few women at the expo expressed a slight disdain for, it feeling a little unnecessary at what was a very inclusive event.
I don't think I'll start vaping any time soon. Though I enjoyed the vibes and the people at Vaper Expo 2016, I couldn't really deal with my nostrils becoming moistened every time I exhaled through them, and the lack of variety in the more adult flavours. But I wish them the best of luck.
Oh yeah, the vape tricks. There's only about two of them and they just involve doing a smoke ring and kind of pushing it away from your chest, like spurning the advances of a nerd at the prom. I could take it or leave it. Probably leave it.
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