What is vaping: The answers you need to know

How did vaping start? Who is it for? Why is it always being attacked?

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What is vaping?

Vaping: the act of inhaling vapor produced by any kind of e-cigarette or personal vaporizer. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a coil housed in an atomizer that transforms “e-liquid” (or e-juice) into vapor. The e-liquid (or e-juice) that goes into the atomizer is a mixture of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine, usually with water-soluble food flavorings. Nicotine is optional and customizable.

Vaping’s a hot topic these days. It has ignited one of the biggest debates in public health history, and has found its way into just about every newspaper and TV news show. There are at least 10 million Americans who vape currently, and more than two million of them no longer smoke cigarettes at all. Worldwide the number is harder to be sure about, but there are likely to be 30 million or more vapers.

The story of vaping is an interesting one. A perfect example of true free-market capitalism, or a consumer response to a health crisis that government intervention hasn’t solved, or a user-driven technological revolution. It might be all three of those things!

As the popularity of vaping has skyrocketed, smoking has declined more quickly than anyone could have imagined. But with more visibility also comes public doubt and fear. It’s an easy target for anyone looking to capitalize on a good old-fashioned moral panic.

Vaping, vapers, and e-cigarettes

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Some vapor products look like cigarettes (usually called “cigalikes”), and some are larger. Many people choose a cigalike first because they’re often found in the same stores where cigarettes are sold, they look familiar, and they have a fairly low initial cost.

The term electronic cigarette (or e-cigarette, or e-cig) doesn’t necessarily refer specifically to the small cigalikes, although some people use it that way. E-cigarette can refer to any vaping device. Other common names are personal vaporizer (sometimes shortened to PV), vape, or mod. The term mod originates from the early users who modified their primitive e-cigs to work better, or modifed other products (like flashlights and laser pointers) to work as vapes. Big or small, disposable or refillable, e-cigarettes do essentially the same thing.

Vaping means different things to different people. For smokers who have spent years desperately trying to find a way to quit cigarettes, vaping can be a life-improving or even life-saving miracle. For some in public health — especially the rabid anti-nicotine zealots in the tobacco control field — e-cigs are a threat to a carefully constructed status quo. For them, enjoying nicotine without health consequences is like sinning without the threat of hell.

We call the users of e-cigarettes vapers. Vapers discovered early on that using sweet flavors like candy and fruit worked well to distance them from the experience of burning tobacco. So despite the politicians screaming that vaping flavors are a tobacco industry plot to addict children, the truth is that every vaper likes delicious flavors. I’m 57 and I’m vaping lemon cake right now. It’s good too!

Who is vaping meant for?

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Most vapers are former or current smokers — some are still trying to quit, and others use e-cigarettes to get the nicotine they like when it’s inconvenient to smoke. There are some vapers who have never smoked, but they represent a tiny percentage of the vaping population.

We know from survey data that as vaping has grown in recent years, smoking has declined to record lows. And despite the claims that vaping is a gateway to smoking for teens, youth smoking rates have fallen even more rapidly than adult rates since the advent of vaping.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University, says that “as vaping has become more popular among youth, it has displaced cigarette smoking and contributed towards the de-normalization of cigarette smoking.”

Teenagers experiment with things. They always have, and they always will.

No one is suggesting that kids should take up vaping, but the fact is that almost all teenagers who use e-cigarettes are already smokers or have quit smoking. Among regular teen vapers, fewer than one percent are never-smokers.

When you see a scare story about teen vaping, look closely to see if the authors are measuring “ever use” or “last 30-day use.” Surveying teens about something they may have done once in the last 30 days, or once in their lives, doesn’t tell us anything about their regular habits. Teenagers experiment with things. They always have, and they always will. But the number of under-18’s who vape regularly is small indeed.

Is vaping as bad as smoking?

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Vaping doesn’t cause the physical harms of smoking because it doesn’t involve combustion. Despite how they may look to non-smokers, smoking and vaping are vastly different. When you smoke a cigarette, you’re lighting dead plant material on fire and inhaling the smoke. Breathing smoke — any kind of smoke — is dangerous.

The products of combustion are devastating to the lungs and cardiovascular system. Thousands of chemicals and compounds are inhaled, including more than 70 that are known carcinogens. In addition to cancer risk, smoking can cause massive damage to the heart and circulatory system, leading to heart disease, and possibly causing heart attack and stroke. There is also damage to the lungs, which can cause emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

As far as we can tell, vaping causes none of those things. There may be some risks from vaping (which we have looked at in more detail before), but so far no evidence of serious health danger has emerged. Studying all the available scientific literature on vaping, the Royal College of Physicians concluded last year that vaping is “unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco.”

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Most of the debate over vaping is rooted in a simple disagreement. Should we judge vaping by its unproven risks, or by its proven benefits? American public health officials are prone to looking at absolute risk as the yardstick. They’re worried there might be some health risk that will appear out of nowhere. British health groups, on the other hand, support the idea of harm reduction — offering users of risky products safer (but not necessarily absolutely safe) choices. Vaping is safer than smoking. It is tobacco harm reduction.

Unless you’re a vaper or smoker, you may not have a real opinion on the health risks and benefits of e-cigarettes and vaping. Maybe you should. After all, everyone has friends or family members who, despite all we know about the real harms of cigarettes, continue to smoke.

About half of long-term smokers die prematurely from using cigarettes. The World Health Organization estimates that a billion people will die from smoking this century. What if we could get most of those smokers to replace cigarettes with a product that carries just a tiny fraction of the risk — or maybe no risk at all?

Reducing or eliminating the damage caused by burning tobacco would not only save many lives, it would also allow billions of dollars that are now spent treating preventable smoking diseases to be directed elsewhere. Reducing smoking would save money as well as lives.

How did vaping start?

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In the beginning, there was China

In 2003, a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik developed a device to allow smokers to have a “smoking” experience without actually inhaling combusted tobacco. Hon’s father had died from lung cancer and he himself was a smoker who wanted to quit. He patented his device and the company he worked for changed its name to Ruyan (meaning “like smoke”).

There had been previous stabs at developing a “smokeless cigarette” by other inventors and even by tobacco companies, but for various reasons no one got as far as actually making and selling a commercial product. After Hon Lik launched the Ruyan device, it was about three years before e-cigarettes made their way to Europe and the United States.

By 2007, there were several online sellers in the U.S., and a growing number of mall kiosks where passing smokers could buy starter kits with rechargeable batteries, and refill cartridges that screwed onto the batteries. For $150 or so, you might buy what would now cost less than $30.

The early products didn’t work very well, but for many smokers who wanted a way out they worked well enough. Others saw the potential, but were determined to find ways to improve the experience. The batteries didn’t last long enough, the hit wasn’t strong enough, the cartridges didn’t feed liquid to the coil well. Could these issues things be solved by…tinkering?

Meet me at the forum

The early vapers found each other online. Among the earliest meeting places was E-Cigarette Forum (ECF), created by a young British vaper named Oliver Kershaw. The excited new “e-smokers” (one of many early names that didn’t survive) talked about what worked, what didn’t, and what they’d like to change. ECF wasn’t the only forum either. The vaping world was expanding.

Without the internet, it’s hard to see how the e-cigarette could have lasted. The products were not widely distributed, and the users were scattered. The online forums created a real community where every new member was celebrated and given advice and encouragement. Everyone had been a smoker. Everyone was excited to quit. Everyone knew it was hard to do. Everyone was aware that they were part of a kind of revolution.

Vapers had real input into the design of the products they used.

In 2008, the World Health Organization denounced e-cigarettes, and governments around the world followed suit. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered shipments from China seized, claiming that e-cigs were an illegal “drug-device product.” Two American companies, including Sottera (which made NJoy e-cigarettes), sued the FDA, and in 2010 Judge Richard Leon granted an injunction preventing the FDA from regulating the products as medical devices. An appeals court upheld Leon’s decision, and the FDA decided to change its strategy and regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products.

By this time, new kinds of products were being developed, and the innovation took an unusual route. There were many Chinese manufacturers, but with few local vapers to get feedback from, they turned to American and European vapers for input. What users on forums like ECF or UK Vapers discussed was incorporated into the succeeding generations of Chinese products. And the generations progressed quickly, sometimes within months — or even weeks. Vapers had real input into the design of the products they used.

Modders and YouTubers

At the same time, some vapers in the west turned to making gear on their own. These pro-am “modders” created designs that were sometimes adopted by mass manufacturers in China, but were often sold directly to vapers looking for new things. Often known just by their forum nicknames, the early modders like Trog, Cisco, Zen, and Raidy invented products that are still being used, or introduced ideas that would spread widely and stick. Some of them are still at it.

Another crucial internet connection for the growing army of vapers around the world was YouTube. Early vapers shared their opinions on products while the crude webcams of the day allowed them to illustrate the good, bad and ugly. Some of the early vaping YouTubers are still around too. Scott Bonner (igetcha69), Nick “GrimmGreen” Green, and Phil Busardo (PBusardo) are all still making videos, and have hundreds of thousands of fans.

Along with forums and YouTube, a lot of the vaping conversation these days is happening on social media. Between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, vapers around the world are finding new ways to connect, discuss gear, tips and techniques, and organize battles with regulators and legislators.

The domestic industry blooms: e-liquid and vape shops

After the FDA lost to NJoy in court, lots of vapers started to open their own businesses. After all, they had been helped by this unlikely miracle — why not share it with other smokers? Two things happened that spurred the rapid growth in vaping after 2010. First, a lot of online businesses began selling American-made e-liquid. They offered a dizzying variety of flavors and levels of quality. Some were basic single-flavor mixes, but others were complex and artfully made. However, vapers buying online had to take a chance they might like a flavor, since they couldn’t try it first.

The e-liquid boom led naturally to the explosion of vape shops. Before the growth in e-liquid and vape gear choices that happened after 2010, vapers bought almost exclusively online. But as the community got too big for the virtual world to contain, vapers started cashing in their retirement accounts, quitting their jobs, and opening shops that became real places for vapers to meet.

The legal struggle to keep vapor products available to American adults drags on.

Some vape shops created their own lines of e-liquid. Others sold the hundreds of new brands that were springing up across the country. With the ability to try flavors in a shop before committing to buy, vaping expanded even more quickly. But with the growth also came visibility and legal challenges. Cities and states wanted to tax vapor products, to eliminate “child flavors,” and to regulate where vapers could vape.

The current battle with the FDA will decide whether the entire independent vapor industry is able to survive, or whether the lives of millions of ex-smokers will be handed to the only businesses with the money to afford meeting the FDA’s requirements: the Big Tobacco companies. The regulations the FDA has imposed will bankrupt any company without millions to risk on a regulatory gamble.

Several challenges to the FDA’s deeming regulations are being considered in federal courts right now. Manufacturers and trade associations have come together to fight the rules that threaten their existence, and threaten vapers’ access to the products that have helped them quit smoking. The legal struggle to keep vapor products available to American adults drags on.

Vaping can change your life -- if you give it a chance

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Sometimes when I’m discouraged about the future of vaping, I have a look at CASAA’s testimonials page. There thousands of vapers tell their own stories about quitting cigarettes. They’re regular people like you and me. They smoked and they struggled to find a way to stop.

Then they found a way.

“Smoked since the age of 13. Am now 42 years old. Tried to quit many times, using Zyban, Champix etc. Always went back to smoking. Have been vaping for the last 3 months, and will never go back to smoking normal cigarettes again. I’m no longer coughing, sleep better and my persistent heartburn has stopped. My kids are happier as I don’t smell like an ashtray. I must just say that I never smoked around my kids or in the home. Vaping has had a huge impact on my health and quality of life.”

“I smoked since i was 14. Most of the people in my family had, and husband was also a smoker. We have both quit using vaping. it was a god send. We tried so many other things and nothing worked. The patch, lozenge, Chantix, cold turkey, NOTHING. Vape has had us smoke free for almost 3 years!”

CASAA is a consumer organization that fights for our right to vape. They depend on donations to do their work, but anyone can join for free. After you join, tell your story too. The voices of more than 200,000 CASAA members are powerful reminders for opponents that vaping saves lives.

What is vaping...for you?

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Vaping means different things to different people. There are folks who will never see something that resembles smoking as something to celebrate. For them, nicotine is an addiction, and inhaling vapor (or smoke) is a crutch, a weakness that indicates some terrible moral deficiency. They might even prefer that we keep smoking, because it satisfies the puritanical conviction that all pleasure must have consequences. Those people seem pretty unhappy.

Most people who have never smoked or vaped don’t necessarily hate it; they just don’t understand why we do it. Fair enough. For me, after smoking for many years and wishing I could quit for a lot of those years, vaping has been the only thing that helped me. It worked because it mimicked smoking well enough that I could trick myself into using it as a replacement. But soon enough I came to actually prefer it! I don’t want to smoke anymore.

The different kinds of devices, the thousands of flavors, the vapers that were so helpful to me, the desire to keep vaping alive and healthy so other smokers could do what I did — those are the things that define vaping to me.

What about you? We’d love to hear your comments. What is vaping?

OK, I want to try vaping. Where do I start?

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What should I buy?

If you want to give vaping a shot, you could start by buying a cigalike in a gas station or convenience store. Many vapers have started that way, and some continue to use disposable e-cigarettes. But it gets expensive to spend five bucks on something that probably offers less than one cigarette’s worth of puffs (despite what their packages claim).

If you like the idea of a cigarette-sized device, there are refillable and rechargeable cigalike devices that will be more cost effective over time than buying disposables. Vaping360 has an excellent guide to cigalike starter kits. Note, however, that even in that guide the suggestion is that you may be likely to have more success with something that has more power and flexibility.

That’s where vape pens or mods come in. They offer larger batteries, which last longer and can deliver more power. Regulated devices, like those described in our guide to vape starter kits, offer adjustable power, and have safety features built in to prevent the kind of battery accidents that have made the news lately. And with refillable tanks, they make it easy to choose flavors you like best.

Remember, nicotine isn’t the danger in cigarettes!

Another option is a pod device (also called a pod mod). Pods offer something of a cross between cigalikes and larger vape pens or mods. They’re more powerful and deliver a stronger hit than cigalikes, but have less ability to customize the experience than regular mods and tanks.

Try different brands and flavors of e-liquid until you find a couple that you like. A vaper’s flavor preferences may shift as taste buds heal after quitting cigarettes, but we luckily have an almost endless variety to choose from as our preferences change. Also, it’s best to start with a fairly high level of nicotine, like 18 or even 24 mg/ml. You won’t vape more than you need, but it’s possible to get liquid that is too low in nicotine — which means you would have to vape constantly to get what you crave. Remember, nicotine isn’t the danger in cigarettes!

What's best, buying online or at a vape shop?

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It’s up to you. The great thing about vaping is that there are so many choices. That’s also the bad thing about vaping. Sometimes too many options can paralyze you with indecision. If you’ve checked out our guides and already know what you’d like to start out with, buying online is easy. If you’d rather see the products before you buy, I suggest visiting a vape shop.

If you know another vaper, ask where they go. You might also read online reviews, like on Yelp. Just remember, the things you’re looking for as a new vaper might not be the same as what an experienced vaper would seek. Try to find a shop that’s known for helping new vapers. That means patient customer service, and sales people willing to answer lots of questions and give you several options to choose from. Most vape shops are very welcoming and enjoy helping a new vaper get started right.

If the first place you visit doesn’t seem helpful, don’t give up on vaping! Try another shop. Remember, you’re doing this for you. Don’t let an initial bad experience sour you on what might be one of the best choices you could ever make.

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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.