Hanging Out with Metalhead Vape Enthusiasts at the UK's First Vaping Expo
A serious, dedicated, slightly unexpected subculture has sprung up around consuming nicotine via a rechargeable piece of plastic.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"It's pretty foggy in there," warned a girl walking out of Vape Jam, the UK's first ever vaping expo. She wasn't lying. The lower central hall of London's Olympia exhibition center was cloaked in thick billows of white haze—the result of the atomized "e-juice" being exhaled enthusiastically by the thousands of people in attendance.
The place was rammed with punters, many of them heavily tattooed, heavily built men; the majority of them in the uniform of a reformed Bring Me the Horizon fan: snapbacks, flesh tunnels, AF1s, and nose-rings. Around 120 exhibitors were displaying their vaping hardware, which included everything from e-cigarettes and advanced personal vaporizers (APVs) to new flavors of e-liquid and other stuff you're probably already familiar with if your preferred method of nicotine consumption is via a rechargeable piece of plastic.
Judging by the fanfare, the vape industry has found its place in the UK market. After exploding in the States a few years ago, it's now a multi-billion dollar business, and suppliers are starting to cash in over here. In the process, a serious, dedicated, and perhaps slightly unexpected subculture has emerged from what was once an attempt to help the masses kick their cigarette addictions.
The act of puffing on a cigarette, cigar, or pipe has a rich history; people started smoking and chewing tobacco as far back as 1,000 BC, roughly 2,950 years before American doctors were advising consumers to smoke Lucky Strikes for their throat-soothing qualities. Christopher Columbus is widely credited for bringing tobacco to Europe from the Americas in the 1500s, and the plant's smoke has been blackening lungs, championing dependence, and snatching lives here ever since.
Today, the future of smoking is looking up. You can now compliment a pint with a lungful of nicotine-enriched, bubblegum-flavored mist that's allegedly much safer than cigarette smoke. There are countless flavors, you can do it indoors and, in general, it's cheaper than smoking.
"The UK vaping scene has grown so fast in the last two years; we have a very close community," said Jay Coligado, a "mod maker," i.e. someone who builds customized vape pens. "Vaping appeals to all sorts of people. It's very catchy, especially when you're standing outside vaping, people tend to come up to you and ask what you're doing. I always find myself encouraging people to switch from smoking to vaping."
I was quickly told that people who vape are "vapers," not "vapists," for obvious reasons. Tom Ferry from Atlantic Vape, a UK-based company importing vape devices and e-liquids from the US, explained that vaping has "come on leaps and bounds" over here due to the general awareness of health risks associated with smoking.
"Social media has played a huge role in the evolution of vaping—the number of groups on Facebook and Instagram popping up is insane!" he said. "The US really set the trend for the vaping 'lifestyle,' as opposed to simply being a smoking cessation. Vape Jam is a huge step for the UK vape scene, especially as there's so much hype around events like Vape Summit and the Electronic Cigarette Convention in the US. Vaping is here to stay. The community is so tightly knit, and it's so exciting being part of the industry from the beginning and watching it grow."
Amir Saeed, AKA P-Vaper, is the brains behind Vape Jam. He's also one of the first UK vendors to bring premium US e-juice to the European markets, making him one of the bigger names in Britain's e-cigarette cottage industry.
"I didn't expect so many people to walk through the doors," he told me. "So far, all of the exhibitors—even the guys from America—have said it's one of the best, if not the best, show they have been to."
Many of the men (and the modest number of women) in attendance shared a similar vibe: somewhat reclusive—cloistered, almost—and fanatical, as if an obsession with vaping and all its supplementary tech is a natural step up from an enthusiasm for Minecraft, a new hobby rooted in real life, but with enough gadgetry and oneupmanship in terms of gear and accessories to keep the conversation moving. Others in attendance may disagree with that assessment, of course, but it's certainly what I picked up from a couple of hours of wandering around. The more mansplainer, reddit-y end of the crowd didn't help themselves much, either; there were a number of "vape babes" walking around in not many clothes, predominantly to a reaction of wide-eyed, slack-jawed gawps, and one man shouting, "I'm off for a wank!"
Things really kicked off when Aaron Pederson, president of marketing at Space Jam and E-Gains (an American e-liquid producer and distribution company), took to the stage and challenged the growing crowd to a dance competition. A few unlucky souls were plucked from the front row before gyrating awkwardly for a couple of minutes to a blast of funk. The winner was chosen by the loudest roar, and a lady sporting a lacy Victorian frock walked off with enough e-juice to poison a large ecosystem.
Pederson then started throwing endless freebies into the crowd, and rounded off his appearance by commanding a giant, lung-busting vape inhalation. In one massive synchronized movement, the throng drew on their e-cigarettes and released a gigantic, breathy cloud of vapor into the already stifling atmosphere. It was an impressive sight, I suppose, if you enjoy seeing large clouds of vapor, but it did get me thinking about how safe this stuff is.
Watch: We Tried the Most Disgusting E-Cig Flavors So You Don't Have to:
E-liquid is normally comprised of four main ingredients: vegetable glycerin, nicotine, propylene glycol (PG), and flavoring. When the user takes a toke of an e-cigarette or vape pen, the battery sends a charge of power to the atomizer and cartomizer, which then heats the liquid (at a customizable voltage level) leading to vaporization. Although largely promoted as a safe alternative to cigarettes, there has been some noise about potentially harmful chemicals—such as multiple forms of formaldehyde—found in e-liquid when heated at a high voltage. One study even claimed that a heavy vaper, who sets the e-cigarette to high voltage on a regular basis, was five to 15 times more likely to develop cancer than a long-term smoker. However, these stats are still up for debate, and there's no doubt the e-cigarette industry has played a hand in reducing the number of people who smoke actual cigarettes.
"I quit smoking about 11 months ago because of my asthma," said Dave, one of the attendees. "Now I vape and I feel far better. The max PG juice does tend to aggravate my breathing a little, so I use 3G juice instead."
Kieran Lambourne from Bracknell said he was "hacking his guts up every morning" after smoking 20 to 30 roll-ups a day for a decade, but vaping has helped him quit.
"To be honest, I never wanted to quit smoking because it was something I enjoyed. But now, I don't think I'll ever give up vaping—it's a healthy alternative," he told me. "I'm a member of the UK Vape Community on Facebook. It's full of loads of cool people. Everybody helps each other out."
I then had a chat with pipe smoker Kevin Nuttall, who was drawing on a special pipe-like vape pen.
"I took up vaping so I could vape while at work. I also use it in the car," he said. "It has improved my health because I don't smoke my pipe so much. I like the Druid (liquorice) and Summer Pudding (mixed berries) flavors, as well as a tobacco flavor called Navy Cut. I am certainly one of the more senior vapers."
As the day wore on, the mist hanging over our heads gradually dissipated, the vapers leaving one by one. For the first time, it was actually possible to see each end of the huge exhibition space clearly. What also became clear is that vaping is big business, with an even larger following, and that people are starting to make serious money out of the industry. Give it five years and I wouldn't be surprised if the e-cigarette world had its very own Ivan Menezes, or Simon Cowell, or anyone else who's made a huge amount of money in their chosen field.
Like almost every subculture to emerge in the past decade, the one that's sprung up around vaping is based principally online. That's likely because the internet is a place where ideas and discussions can play out in a relatively neutral environment, where people can express themselves among likeminded people without fear of discrimination.
I get the feeling, after attending Vape Jam, that there's certainly an element of this within the vaping community: a sense of togetherness, as opposed to people who simply want to quit smoking hanging out together in a room. Is it healthy? We'll have to wait and see. Will Vape Jam be back? P-Vaper assured me it would: "Next year it's going to be double the size."