Vaping without nicotine: who’s doing it?

Who’s vaping without nicotine, who’s sticking with it, and why does it matter?

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Vaping is vaping, whether you’re doing it with or without nicotine. In fact, one of the most important things about vaping has always been the vaper’s ability to precisely control their nicotine. If you’re smoking cigarettes, the only way to reduce the nicotine is to smoke less.

But because you can get e-liquid in every nicotine level, you can vape just a little and get a big dose of nic, or vape a lot with no nicotine at all — and everything in between. For some vapers, they’re happy using a lot of nicotine, like they did with smoking. For others, reducing nic is important.

When I started vaping in 2012, I had the idea almost immediately of reducing my nicotine intake and just enjoying the flavor. What could be better after 38 years of Camels, I thought, than to kick back with a relaxing zero-nicotine vape while being free of the chains of addiction. Goodbye, demon nicotine!

We know that smoking addiction is more than just the nic.

But it wasn’t to be. For me, the nic was a crucial element of vaping success. I needed to feel the vapor when I inhaled it, and without nicotine, there was no feeling at all. Close your eyes and no-nicotine vaping is the same as breathing clean air. The horror! I needed nic’s scratchy kiss to enjoy vaping. And almost five years later, I still do.

I’m not alone either. It seems that the vast majority of vapers like nicotine and stick with it, though in lower and lower concentrations as the gear we vape with gets more powerful and efficient. That’s not to say that non-nicotine vaping isn’t a thing; it’s just not a huge thing compared to the traditional way we vape.

After all, most vapers were smokers (or still are). A big part of smoking is the nicotine. Why vaping seems to work better than pharmaceutical nicotine products to quit cigarettes is that in addition to the nic, it gives us a good simulation of the act of smoking. If you’re a typical vaper, you inhale, you exhale, you watch the vapor drift through the air…and you probably also enjoy the effects of nicotine.

Has vaping caused an epidemic of teen nicotine use?

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The regular accusation is that vaping is causing a resurgence of teen nicotine addiction. In his foreword to the Surgeon General’s report, “E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Tom Frieden laid out the supposed fear. “E-cigarettes are tobacco products that deliver nicotine,” wrote Frieden. “Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, and many of today’s youth who are using e-cigarettes could become tomorrow’s cigarette smokers.”

Is that a legitimate fear? We have good information on teen nicotine use from data gathered in the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, conducted by the University of Michigan for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The MTF questionnaire has asked teens twice now if they use nicotine when they vape.

Whipping up fear about nicotine addiction is big business.

Last December’s MTF data showed fewer than one in four 12th grade vapers reported using nicotine. If you think that was a fluke, remember that the previous year’s survey showed almost exactly the same result.

If just 25 percent of the high school seniors who vape are using nicotine, vaping is going to make a really rotten tool for big tobacco to “recruit a new generation of addicts,” as the anti-vaping zealots always say. But they keep saying it anyway. Don’t expect to see any letup in studies that purport to show a gateway from vaping to smoking — or news stories giving their authors the desired publicity. Whipping up fear about nicotine addiction is big business.

Could vaping itself just be...a fad?!

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Nobody talks much about the nicotine-free vaping teenagers, because the story just doesn’t line up with the agenda the anti-nic activists want to push. If 75 percent of vaping teens aren’t using the “addictive drug” they claim to fear, then what’s the story?

Probably the story is that for many teenagers, vaping is just a fad. Like hula hoops, break dancing, bell bottom pants and the Backstreet Boys, vaping is just taking its lap in the here-today-gone-tomorrow teen trend pool. That fits with the data we have, which show that after a meteoric rise in teen vaping, it’s actually been declining for the last couple years. And that’s fine. Teen smoking is declining too, and that’s what really matters.

Next time someone brags how they’ve stepped down their nic, make them do the math.

It’d probably be smarter for the hyped-up haters of vaping to just quit making such a big deal of teen vaping. Kids probably will keep stubbornly doing it as long as our enemies continue to work so hard painting it as a big taboo. The FDA finally made it official by basing their slow-motion destruction of the vapor industry on the supposed danger of teen nicotine uptake.

Another indication that it’s a high school fad (or was) is the number of Google searches for the question, “Is vaping without nicotine bad for you?” Those are people wanting to try vaping who are worried about the health risks. If you got to this article with that search, the quick answer is no…probably. No-nicotine vaping probably isn’t dangerous — but vaping with nicotine likely isn’t bad for you either, at least for non-pregnant adults without heart disease.

Blowing the clouds, doing the tricks

The vape trickster

Aside from trend-seeking teens, who are the other big consumers of nicotine free e-juice? You know who they are: the vape tricksters and cloud chasers. For obvious reasons, cloud blowers and tricksters require nothing more than VG to create their room-filling billows. They’d be spending half their lives lying on a couch if they were doing those big pulls all day on live e-juice, so many vape performers avoid nic.

But most vapers are using nicotine. That’s because, despite what the public health drones tell each other, the vast majority of vapers are current or ex-smokers. Most of us want nicotine. A quick and unscientific poll of e-liquid sellers tells the story: five percent or less of my correspondents’ sales comes from zero-nicotine vape juice. Some said one to two percent. It’s a very niche market.

How low can you go?

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However, the nic that most people are vaping now is less concentrated. For the same reason cloud competitions and vape tricking are popular these days, vapers are buying e-liquid with less nic. According to one vape shop owner, the average nic level in the e-juice he sells has gone from 12 mg to 3 mg in just the last two years.

That’s because sub-ohm tanks have made it easy for lots of vapers to blow some clouds of their own. Before 2014, you had to build your own coils to produce those cumulus-style plumes. Once the Atlantis and its followers came along, every vaper could fog up a room. And that changed a lot of traditional mouth-to-lung vapers into volumizers. That big airflow and those chunky coils suck up the liquid. You just can’t direct-lung inhale with high nic; you’d get way too much of it.

We know that smoking addiction is more than just the nic.

So the nic levels dropped with the easy availability of cloud-producing gear. That doesn’t mean vapers are getting less nicotine though. If you used to vape 3 mL a day of 18 mg/mL liquid, and now you vape 18 mL of 3 mg/mL juice, have you reduced your nic? Nope, it’s the same quantity of nicotine. Next time someone brags how they’ve stepped down their nic, make them do the math. They might be wrong.

There are lots of vapers who’ve seriously reduced their nicotine intake though. Many do it intentionally, by gradually stepping down their nic levels in their juice till it reaches zero. There are others that reduce their nic over time just because they lose interest in the effects.

We know that smoking addiction is more than just the nic. Burning tobacco has monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI’s) that combine with nicotine to create the powerful sense of reward our brains get when we light a cigarette. And the tobacco companies often add ammonia, which allegedly speeds the nicotine into the bloodstream. Vaping has no MAOI’s and no ammonia, which may mean that the nicotine’s addictive hold on ex-smoking vapers declines over time. Current scientific consensus says that nic without smoke is probably just not very addictive.

What’s your story? High nic, low nic, no nic?

We at Vaping360 are really curious about our readers’ nicotine use. If you vape no-nic e-juice, tell us your story in the comments section. How did you get there? What did you start at? Are you a cloud chaser? Can you just enjoy the flavors with no nicotine, or do you crave that big thump in your throat, as our editor-in-chief says before he picks up a bottle of 24 mg juice for another couple drops in his atty.

Jim McDonald
I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.
  • twan

    I like zero nicotine (I’m all about clouds and flavor, never was a smoker). I started vaping a couple months ago to try to quit dipping tobacco but after being given a bottle of 12mg juice I realize that I need more to help me quit the can. So I need to be on the lookout for a more basic MTL kit for higher nicotine and rotate my subohm with 0nic for playing around

  • Jen Castle

    I use zero nicotine. I gave up smoking a long time ago but always wished that there was a way I could still do the smoking action without the harmful effects of burning tobacco. So when I discovered vaping existed, it catered to that need. I didn’t want to use nicotine because I didn’t want to re-addict to it.(though I know nicotine isn’t the most evil aspect of smoking) I get the feeling that people like me are looked down on in the vape community because vapers are trying to advocate vaping as a harm reduced nicotine delivery system and having people who just vape ‘for fun’ dilutes the vaping harm reduction message. I get that and I hope vape advocacy succeeds against FDA regs. I find vaping without nic is my form of self medication, helps alleviate anxiety etc.

    • Jim McDonald

      I absolutely understand that, and I think most vapers I know would be supportive of your non-nic vaping. I don’t think anyone can separate the reasons the smoking experience resonates with each person. I’ve never been sure how much of the appeal is simply in the smoking-like motions of vaping. That’s a huge part of it for me.

  • Talon Michael Steinhauer

    Nice write up Jim.
    I’m a zero nic vapor user. I started vaping when I needed an alternative to cigs and cigars during character cosplay at conventions. I could never stand the feeling of nic at the back of my throat and the smell after a day with a cigarette was terrible. Vaping developed into a hobby for me after a short time and I became a flavor chaser. Haven’t ever started smoking because of my vape use and still don’t use nic. After a while I started to become a vape advocate and try my best to support my friends and family quitting cigs and switching to vapor.

    • Jim McDonald

      Great story! Thanks.

  • Xibilius

    I started off 2 years ago with 18, then 9, then 6, now it’s 3
    And i’m thinking about going 0 in a couple of months, but I’m wondering will it be as satisfying …

    • Jim McDonald

      Yeah, I can’t feel anything without at least a little nicotine myself.

  • Lisa

    I vape 0mg nic. Started with 18mg, and approximately 6 months later was down to 0. I always liked smoking as an activity and found it soothing to my nerves. However, I hated the odor and bad health risks. So I can and will continue to vape at 0mg, because it’s still soothing and I don’t crave cigarettes that way. This is my story.

    Lost both my parents (smokers) to cancer. In fact, my mom passed from lung cancer 1 year after I was diagnosed with cancer at 37. I am now 44, and still am fighting it. My first 6 months of chemo I was still smoking. I would make the nurses tape up my port every few hours so I could go outside to have a cigarette, the very thing that was keeping me in that chair while toxic poison was dripped in my veins to try to kill the toxic poisons the cigarettes put in there. How sick is that? I’m dying, right now, from cancer, and I still wasn’t able to stop smoking for months.I smoked for 30 years.

    My sister is 50, and has been on oxygen full time for her copd since 44. She also smoked for 30 years. For some of us the damage is permanent, even though we now vape. It’s not too late for others.

    The media uses the exploding battery fear (uneducated) and nicotine overdoses (lazy) to scare people. The few accidents are a very small percentage. Even with those few people that are injured, it’s a tiny percentage of people and doesn’t even compare to the death and disease caused by smoking. It’s offensive to me that sensationalism is more important than lives and contributes to the death of smokers because of fear.

    Yes, let’s keep encouraging people to smoke, which kills thousands every year. Worldwide, tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths per year, and current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030. Rather than to vape, which hurts a couple hundred idiots per year? And those are probably the same idiots that ride their bikes without helmets, it’s common sense people! You try to explain to your children when they are 5 and 8 years old what cancer is and why you are dying. Then explain about battery safety and careless people. Let them pick the more risky activity.

    Ok, I’ll get of my soapbox now, sorry. I started vaping back when the Blu cigalikes came out. I did smoke less for a couple months with that, but continued to smoke with it. The cartridges constantly leaked into my mouth and caused burns and blisters. So I stopped. Then after further technology improved the quality of ecigs I tried again. That was in February of 2013. My official quit date is February 12, 2013.

  • Steven Lowry

    I have used 0 nic on occasion. I prefer 1.5 or lower. I was a smoker for 40 years. Now I only vape. Started at 12 nic and dropped to 6 then 3 and then 1.5 to 3. Now I stay at 1.5 or lower. I am heading for 0 nic always. Also use a sub ohm vaporesso tank and mod.

  • Lynda Christina Ward

    I always go ‘Nicotine Free’ now. I used to smoke (when I was at senior school, it was the ‘in’ thing to do). I would also, when I could, smoke cigs to ease my stress levels. I first got into vaping through using E-Shisha pens etc… I liked the variety of flavours that were available. But I wanted to get the bigger clouds/to create my own e-liquids etc… I’ve just started going into box mods (I like the small/dinky ones). I use my own ‘Nicotine Free’ Hemp e-liquid, which I use for CBD & health reasons alone. It’s always going to be ‘Nicotine Free’ for me.

    • Jim McDonald

      I’m glad you’ve found what works for you. That’s all that matters!

  • Lisa

    I vape 0mg nic. Started with 18mg, and approximately 6 months later was down to 0. I always liked smoking as an activity and found it soothing to my nerves. However, I hated the odor and bad health risks. So I can and will continue to vape at 0mg, because it’s still soothing and I don’t crave cigarettes that way. This is my story.

    Lost both my parents (smokers) to cancer. In fact, my mom passed from lung cancer 1 year after I was diagnosed with cancer at 37. I am now 44, and still am fighting it. My first 6 months of chemo I was still smoking. I would make the nurses tape up my port every few hours so I could go outside to have a cigarette, the very thing that was keeping me in that chair while toxic poison was dripped in my veins to try to kill the toxic poisons the cigarettes put in there. How sick is that? I’m dying, right now, from cancer, and I still wasn’t able to stop smoking for months.I smoked for 30 years.

    My sister is 50, and has been on oxygen full time for her copd since 44. She also smoked for 30 years. For some of us the damage is permanent, even though we now vape. It’s not too late for others.

    The media uses the exploding battery fear (uneducated) and nicotine overdoses (lazy) to scare people. The few accidents are a very small percentage. Even with those few people that are injured, it’s a tiny percentage of people and doesn’t even compare to the death and disease caused by smoking. It’s offensive to me that sensationalism is more important than lives and contributes to the death of smokers because of fear.

    Yes, let’s keep encouraging people to smoke, which kills thousands every year. Worldwide, tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths per year, and current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030. Rather than to vape, which hurts a couple hundred idiots per year? And those are probably the same idiots that ride their bikes without helmets, it’s common sense people! You try to explain to your children when they are 5 and 8 years old what cancer is and why you are dying. Then explain about battery safety and careless people. Let them pick the more risky activity.

    Ok, I’ll get of my soapbox now, sorry. I started vaping back when the Blu cigalikes came out. I did smoke less for a couple months with that, but continued to smoke with it. The cartridges constantly leaked into my mouth and caused burns and blisters. So I stopped. Then after further technology improved the quality of ecigs I tried again. That was in February of 2013. My official quit date is February 12, 2013.

    • Jim McDonald

      Thanks for the thoughtful and moving story, Lisa.

  • cgurholt

    I consciously choose to stay at 6mg, I love clouds and although sometimes harsh on my throat I stick with it. Its primarily for the nootropic effects as well as the early studies showing the neuroprotective benefits. I also have ADHD and have found it to be a far better treatment than other stimulants which are highly addictive and have risk of sudden death.

    • Dylan Casten

      same here dude