The E-Cigarette Debate Has Exploded on Internet Forums

Vaping has become an intense topic online, especially on forums like Oliver Kershaw's E-Cigarette-Forum.

The 1965 patent for the first e-cigarette

No one really cared when, in 1963, Herbert A. Gilbert filed a patent for the first e-cigarette, which he called a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette.” What a difference 51 years makes. Today, the $2 billion industry is at the center of one of the biggest public health debates in history. 

There is a contradiction at the heart of what an e-cigarette is, with both sides saying opposite things. On one side, you’ve got nicotine-addicted enthusiasts who believe e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes and represent the biggest revolution in the health-care industry since penicillin. 

On the other hand, naysayers protest that e-cigarettes are dangerously unregulated, untested, and marketed irresponsibly, especially to teenagers, thus encouraging more people to jump on the smoking bandwagon, which is a shitty place to be.   

The shadow of Big Tobacco also looms over the e-cigarette debate. Some of the more hardcore e-cigarette evangelists think the backlash within the health-care community is part of a "conspiracy.” They accuse Big Pharma of throwing money at nonprofit health groups to release studies that have found no relationship between smoking e-cigarettes and quitting traditional cigarettes. 

Suddenly, it seems like everyone cares about the future of vaping: Big Tobacco execs, public health experts, e-cigarette entrepreneurs, evangelistic vape nerds, local politicians, curious teens, and anxious moms all have something to say about whether these cylindrical puff pieces will be the death knell or saving grace of humankind.

A custom e-cigarette “mod” from Sin City Mods

As e-cigarette culture seeps into the mainstream, the fight for our right to fill our lungs with chocolate-chip-cookie-flavored smoke (it’s a fundamental American freedom, goddamnit) has gone from schoolyard skirmish to full-blown war. 

This battle is being fought in courtrooms all over the country as both the Senate and individual states decide how to regulate e-cigarettes. Tobacco companies recently supported two bipartisan Senate bills prohibiting the sale of ecigs to people under 18. Major cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have all bowed one after the other, domino-style, to tighter restrictions on where you’re allowed to puff on your e-stick. 

Yet in spite of all these clamp-downs, signs of vaping’s rising cultural cachet are everywhere--from Courtney Love’s infamous “It’s a fucking NJOY” commercial to this (actually quite good) electronic music mixtape by a collective of artists and musicians called Vapecru. 

But nowhere is the growing swell of vaping enthusiasts more evident than in e-cigarette forums. Forum users are intrinsically early adopters, mostly because they’re the ones who give the most amount of shits. Dig through these brutal, time-sucking sinkholes, and you’ll find the seeds of what will blow up in a few months. Some of the topics they’re yakking about today will be tomorrow’s headlines; the new gear they’re embracing will be next month’s top sellers. (E-cigarette carpetbaggers, take note.)

Of course, internet forums have always been sites of cultural formation. But what separates e-cigarette forums from, say, forums for Bronies or Scooby Doo fanfic is that the culture growing out of the former is actually important. It has the power to change the discourse—and the governmental policies—around what might be the biggest health issue of our generation.

Right now, the internet’s biggest and most influential e-cigarette forum is the straightforwardly titled E-Cigarette Forum, which has racked up 190,000 registered users. One of those users is Mathew Dryhurst, a San Francisco–based artist who represents the new breed of vapers: Young, technology-obsessed, and just as likely to customize their own e-cigs as they are to build their own synthesizers. E-Cigarette Forum “was the original source of info for me,” Matt said. The site was “where I first learned about modding—transactions for that stuff were mostly happening through forums.”

A British man named Oliver Kershaw created E-Cigarette Forum in 2007, the same year modern e-cigarettes were introduced to US markets via Europe and China. Like many other vape nerds, Oliver has a passion for building and tinkering with things. The 34-year-old dabbled with carpentry and selling furniture online before dedicating himself full-time to building the forum.

At the time, there were scant resources for finding up-to-date information on the infant industry. “I wasn’t sure if people would think e-cigarettes were a stupid gimmick or if they would see that this was the future,” Kershaw told me over the phone.

But Kershaw did know that the forum’s first wave of visitors were going to be looking for a specific type of information: how to smoke weed with the newfangled contraptions. He worried that if e-cigarettes were co-opted by stoners, regulators would try to stamp them out before they got a fair chance to take off. So he decided to set some ground rules: no talking about any other drug besides nicotine, and the focus had to be about “health improvement,” not quitting smoking.

This semantic nuance has become even more important today, as the question of whether e-cigarettes will help people quit smoking or cause more people to start smoking has become hotly contested.

Critics have pointed out that some e-cigarette ads borrow the same glamorizing tactics used by tobacco companies. “It’s a fucking NJOY” is a contemporary echo of Virginia Slim’s “You’ve come a long way, baby.” As Molly Osberg noted on the Verge, other brands position their e-cigs “less like smokes and more like iPads, with TV spots obliquely announcing ‘dreams, opportunities, the promise of new things to come.’” Since e-cigarette marketing is still largely unregulated, these ads can get away with pretty much anything.

But pro-vapers like Kershaw think the anti-e-cigarette backlash (especially surveys that claim teenagers who smoke e-cigs are six times more likely to smoke tobacco too) are part of a larger conspiracy designed to force smokers into making an unfair choice: quit smoking or die.

For vaping evangelists like John Castle, author of Smokeless: An Introductory Guide to the Pleasures of Vaping, e-cigs represent an “escape hatch” from that “gigantic, rotten guilt trip” of a cigarette addiction. As any smoker who has been berated in public by a complete stranger knows ,puffing on smokes has become increasingly taboo. “So online and offline,” John said over email, e-cigarettes are only going to keep getting bigger, “as more and more people discover this technology that finally allows them to achieve freedom from a trap set for them by [tobacco] corporations.”

Herein lies the rub: There just isn’t enough evidence to come down conclusively on whether e-cigarettes are truly a healthier alternative to their analog counterparts. Tellingly, E-Cigarette Forum’s approach to advertising reflects this ambivalence. The entire forum is financially supported by advertisements bought by e-cigarette businesses peddling their wares. Revenue is good enough that Kershaw has been able to hire six full-time staffers to help him run the site. But he’s firm that these ads are “not allowed to make crazy testimonials [about quitting smoking], 'cause they’re all bullshit.”

For now, E-Cigarette Forum is booming. The New Users thread is currently the most popular on the website, and the average age of users has slid from 30 to 20, a sure sign of its trendiness. But Kershaw also knows that his current business model is untenable. “It’s quite possible that in two years time, online sales will be banned,” he said matter-of-factly, “and we won’t be able to put the resources into running the site that we have now without that revenue.” That means no more moderators to verify accounts, kick out spammers, and generally keep an eye on the amount of bullshit that tends to flood internet forums. That means vapers might have to find a new place to congregate. But Kershaw’s got it covered—he’s already bought Vaping.com.

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