They talk about “cartos” and “smoke juice”, and sneer at “analogue” cigarettes. Josh Sims explores the cultural and social sides of e-smoking
When Tom Pruen founded the UK Vapers online forum for e-smokers three years ago, in its first 12 months it quickly attracted 1,000 members. A couple of years later, it had 6,000.
“Sure, there are active users of e-cigarettes that are moderately obsessed with them,” he says. “But then there are many others who are verging on the fanatical. A passionate community spirit has grown out of the fact that e-smoking is viewed by many as a kind of miracle.
“A lot of fans are committed cigarette smokers with no desire to give up, but also a great awareness of the very serious health implications. The electronic cigarette has been the solution they hoped for.”
That passion is considerable too. It is something they want to talk about, even using their own language. If one indication of any strong community is that it develops its own insider, sometimes socially excluding vocabulary, try such terms as “cartos”, “dripping”, “topping” and “juice”.
A community spirit has grown because the market has been so bewildering
This year also saw the first World Vaping Day, to raise awareness of vaping’s possibilities among smokers. In the US, there’s a burgeoning festival scene for e-smokers, or “vapers,” depending on the terminology you choose. Florida’s Vapestock – “Peace, love and vapour!” as its motto has it – is one of the world’s largest, (buy your “I’m not smoking, I’m vaping” T-shirt there).
A vaping circuit is growing in the UK too, from regional events to this year’s VapeFest, held in Tamworth, which is expected to draw 1,000 visitors. To do what? “Drink and vape mostly,” says Mr Pruen, “but also to look at the latest gizmos.”
Indeed, unlike traditional – or as they are sometimes referred to as “analogue” – cigarettes, it is the sheer diversity of e-smoking products that unites. If tobacco smokers can share a sense of ostracism – puffing away, excluded from the pub and office, the last bastion of a community in decline – that is not a problem for vapers who, technically at least, can vape where they please.
Rather, they are bonded by a sort of nerdiness that combines a niche, almost underground, activity with a geeky interest in the latest paraphernalia, from e-cigars and pipes to the potential (to the uninitiated) for some unusual sounding taste sensations.
Some 200 flavours of e-liquid are currently available, from absinthe to black cherry, which keeps the forums abuzz with reviews. And the equipment is improving all the time too. Take, for example, devices that, like a USB stick, plug into your computer as its power source, (or even your iPod when on the go), through to bigger, more powerful vapourising gadgets.
“In fact,” says Oliver Kershaw, founder and owner of the Electronic Cigarette Forum (ECF), the world’s biggest online e-smoking forum, “in part a community spirit has grown because the market has been so bewildering and individuals have come together to find things out. From the business side, it’s been akin to a gold rush and, on the personal side, different people want different things from their vaping.”
Different people have different opinions too. What further unites e-smokers in these early stages of the movement’s development is the opposition, not from “real” smokers, “although you do get smokers mocking them as ‘plastic fags’ and suggesting their use makes you look silly”, Mr Pruen concedes. While anti-smoking groups see vaping as a half-way house when quitting entirely is the only way ahead.
“There remains an entrenched, almost puritanical, moral outrage among some groups against any form of smoking,” says Mr Kershaw, “especially in the US where smoking can now make you a social pariah.”
The irony, perhaps, is that the growing popularity of vaping is, in the long term, likely to help bring an end to traditional smoking. Mr Pruen argues that it’s only a matter of time before the community spirit surrounding vaping dissipates too, as it goes mainstream, “just leaving a hard core into experiencing vaping in its varieties and closely following its latest developments”.
‘I’m thrilled I’m not smoking’
Ros Collins, a 55-year-old picture restorer from London, took up smoking for the second time ten years ago. What started as a three-a-night habit soon became more than ten-a-day. Then her health began to suffer.
“I started getting colds,” she says. “If I coughed once, it would become a full-blown cough and sometimes I’d wake up rasping for breath.”
In January 2010, when Ros caught pneumonia, doctors warned her never to smoke again. But after three months of abstinence, she gave in. “This time I was obsessed with giving up. I was desperate. I tried nicotine patches, but I was allergic to the glue.”
Then, last January, Ros read an article about electronic cigarettes in The New York Times. “The craving was making me miserable,” she says, “so I ordered a starter pack of light ones. Six weeks later I still hadn’t touched a real cigarette. I had more energy, my skin was better and I wasn’t coughing.”
Eighteen months later Ros still hasn’t touched a tobacco cigarette, although she now fears she may be addicted to e-cigarettes.
I use E-Lites now and never forget to charge them so I must be hooked.” But she adds: “I’m thrilled I’m not smoking.”
Report by Katie Burnetts