To vape means different things to different people. To vapers in states like Colorado and California, it's a method of smoking weed that is generally considered safer, better, and more appropriate in public. To those in states where grass is illegal, like New York, it's a method of smoking cigarettes that is generally considered safer, better, cheaper, and about equally as appropriate in public. To the Oxford English Dictionary, it's the 2014 word of the year, meaning "to inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device." To the uninitiated everywhere, it's for douchebags.
Who is right? It's hard to say. Until very recently, I thought vaping was mainly related to weed, if I thought about it at all. When I learned that much of the public vaping I saw in the trash streets of Williamsburg had nothing to do with the quicker absorption of THC into the bloodstream, I thought, So, wait—you're not even getting high? Some employees once vaped in the VICE office, which I found distasteful (it has since been banned on the premises); in college I knew a guy who got an e-cigarette and would insist on using it indoors, constantly, saying it was "just water vapor" and bragging about how he'd taken it on a plane and hadn't been kicked off. This, too, I found stupid.
But many vapers—the official term for one who vapes, not to be confused with the byproduct of vaping, vapor—are passionately advocating for a shift in public opinion, which they believe to be critical in keeping vaping legal. Vape blogs publish articles like "9 Ways You're Probably Damaging the Vaping Movement and Making Us Look Like Idiots"; forums like Reddit are host to indignant, frustrated, and mostly reasonable conversations like "Facebook friends say vaping is stupid. I'm mostly quiet but had to say this." In other words, as vape culture grows, it is beginning to feel the pressures of widespread attention.
"Back in 2009, when I started my YouTube channel, there was no 'vape culture'," says Nick Green, who runs the online vape store and community Namber Juice as well as the vape blog Grimm Green. "There were literally just a handful of people in the United States that had even heard of vaping or e-cigs. We had a small online community made up of people from all different walks of life. Lawyers, nurses, construction workers, blue-collar workers, and everything in between. We were all learning this vaping thing together, with no real agenda or plan, other than being excited that we didn't smoke cigarettes anymore."
Eager to understand more about the growing subculture, I visited three "vape lounges" in the New York City area—one in Brooklyn, one in Queens, and one in Manhattan—and although the vibe at each was slightly different, one thing was clear: The vast majority of people start vaping to stop smoking cigarettes. Each of the lounges operates both as a shop, with vape experts on staff to help you on your vape journey, and as a kind of neighborhood bar; with each new customer, there was a familiar greeting, an exchange of pleasantries, and the sense that it was one big smoky, weird-but-not-unpleasant-smelling family, united in the fact that they'd all quit cigarettes and now fear future governmental regulations would destroy their newfound habit and hobby.
To the vape community, brick-and-mortar vape lounges operate are kind of like the brick-and-mortar bookstores to the literary world: more expensive, but very important. While it's widely understood that it's cheaper to buy vape supplies online, to do so as a newbie would be difficult, and possibly dangerous. (See recent news stories such as "14-year-old boy blinded after e-cigarette explodes at mall" and "An E-Cigarette Exploded in This Teen's Face.") Although the many adults who vape do so to quit cigarettes, the teenage boys who treat vaping like a video game, performing stunts and trying to blow the biggest and coolest vapor clouds they can, risk hurting themselves if they don't know how to operate their very complicated devices properly.
In order to understand vape culture, it helps to understand vapes—how they work, the different small and combustible parts they're composed of, what you have to put in them to make them taste and blow smoke the way you want. Unfortunately, this is harder than it sounds, especially if you want to build your own vape, which allows you to achieve desired effects (bigger clouds, cooler tricks). (Green told me he has amassed hundreds of vapes over the years; another "cloud chaser" I met at the vape lounge in Manhattan pulled no fewer than ten devices out of his backpack when I asked if he could show me his own collection.) The vocabulary sounds like physics (because it is physics) and often involves abbreviations: cartridges, coils, wicks, atomizers ("atties"), cartomizers, clearomizers, DNA20, DNA30, 510s, mechanical mods ("mechs"), box mods, RBAs, RDAs, OHMs. There are thousands of "juice" flavors, made up of propylene glycol ("PG") and vegetable glycerin ("VG"), and different ways to vaporize them (you can "drip" or use a "tank"). Vapers can talk endlessly about their favorite flavors (a Fruit Loops blend, called "Looper," was all the craze for a while) and setups. Traditional cigarettes are sometimes called "analogs"; the difference between an e-cigarette and a vaporizer is negligible (an e-cig looks like an "analog" and is generally disposable), though many vapers will tell you that e-cigs are not serious and you should really upgrade to a vape like a fucking adult. All this is intimidating, and it can create barriers to entry for many would-be vape enthusiasts.
Many also argue that vaping has a "toxic masculinity" problem; the stereotypical vape douche is invariably a man, and on my Wednesday-night voyage to New York's premiere vape lounges I only met two women, one of whom was working behind the counter. Female smokers are about twice as likely to try vaping as male smokers, but because smokers are more likely to be men, the bro-y aspects of vape culture persist. "In the past, it made it difficult for woman to fit in, because it is such a male-dominated industry," confirmed Meaghan Cook, who blogs under the name VapeMeStoopid. "Some of the most visible ambassadors involved in advocacy are some of the nicest men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. But it is important to have a woman's perspective so that other woman have someone they can identify with in case they feel intimidated by the surplus of guys."
I buy this; everyone I met at the vape lounges took fairly constant hits off their devices during our conversations, but they were extremely polite about it and first made sure I didn't mind. While the clientele was mostly young guys, other customers defied the vape-douche stereotype. In Brooklyn, one man, apparently on his way home from an office job, stopped by the shop, took a seat at the bar, asked for a couple of recommendations, tried one juice, bought it, and walked away, the same way you might treat your local bar.
Read more: We Asked Teens if They Think Weed Is Cool
Cook got into vaping by word of mouth, which is common. Most vapers try to get their friends into it, eagerly promoting a cigarette-free lifestyle, but they can often take it too far. "The Ways You're Probably Damaging the Vaping Movement and Making Us Look Like Idiots" list includes the point "You Act Like an Ecig Evangelist," criticizing vapers who "constantly bash smokers on social media or... hound [their] friends night and day to try e-cigs." "I lived in England for the last 5 years, where the culture is more laid-back," Cook says. "Think old Irish pub, with a group of people sitting around a table sharing a pint. The US vape culture is vastly different. It feels more flashy, fast-paced, and in your face."
Like other obnoxious behaviors, such as "You Treat Your E-Cig Like a Fog Machine" and "You Blow Vapor in Someone's Face," the American tendency to simultaneously show off and evangelize promotes the idea that vaping and vapers are annoying—and it strikes fear into the hearts of well-intentioned former smokers who don't want to be tempted into cigarettes again. "I definitely do agree that there needs to be regulation, but not as harsh as what some governments are trying to impose on the industry," Cook says. "Like with any new industry, there are bound to be mistakes, and I think it is important that there are universal guidelines, with a set of standards that all companies should be held accountable to. However, certain regulations want to make testing and placing a new product on the market virtually impossible for smaller companies, and even some of the larger businesses wouldn't be able to afford the proposed testing or application costs. There needs to be a balance, and it needs to be relevant to the fact that vaping is deemed at least 95 percent safer than smoking. Why penalize the vape industry for making a less harmful alternative to smoking?"