Kishan P. walked into a convenience store one day two years ago and saw a small vape pen for about $15. Thinking it would be a portable alternative to hookah, he bought it. After taking it home, he let his friends try it out.
Fast forward to today, and Kishan has spent between $400 and $500 on vape pieces and juices, the liquid solution that contains nicotine. He is a part of “vape culture,” the intense following that vaporizers and e-cigarettes have gained in recent years. This niche culture has been the cause of a new public health debate and plenty of scrutiny regarding the hobbyist aspect that vapers enjoy.
“I used to smoke a lot of hookah with my friends,” said Kishan. “I liked the social aspect and the smoke tricks, but after a while I felt like shit. I could feel the health effects, especially the way my lungs would feel when I was at the gym.”
Kishan’s foray into vaping began the same way the vape industry did – as a way to find a healthier alternative to smoking, either to help smokers quit or to reduce secondhand smoke.
“After a while though, I realized I wasn’t even using my vape for the health benefits anymore, just because I was into the culture of it,” said Kishan.
This culture is stereotyped as “bro” type men who like to show off with huge clouds of vapor, dropping exorbitant sums of money on customized set-ups. As reported by ABC News, some researchers found that vapes are easier on your lungs, containing fewer of the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes. But because the devices are relatively new, conclusive studies are still not entirely reliable, according to the California Department of Public Health. Not everyone believes that they are the harmless hit they’re made out to be.
“At one point, I got a few of those disposable vape pens and figured I’d give them a try,” said Jake L., who has smoked cigarettes for five years. “But I just got more used to nicotine and felt more addicted than I even had before. Since you can smoke them pretty much whenever you want, you start craving the nicotine.”
The addictions that are formed, in addition to the gadget aspect of vapes, may explain how so many people become involved. On a college campus, where young people have an abundance of social time, it’s easy to get friends in on your hobbies as well, when they might not have otherwise.
After Kishan let his friends try out his first vape pen, they were eager to buy their own. And from there, Kishan said, everything just spiraled.
“One friend would get a cooler set-up, and then everyone would just want the same one or one that was even better.”
The social and hobbyist aspect keeps people heavily involved – once you know the vaping basics, there is plenty to be discussed as far as ‘specs’ and funky flavored ‘juices.’
Part of the allure is that vapes can be custom built. A user can buy each piece of the set-up separately depending on their preference, and compare theirs with their friends’.
While vape culture has increased, both Santa Clara University and Santa Clara County have cracked down on the devices, releasing a health advisory in 2015 to treat e-cigarettes and vapes the same as more traditional tobacco products, according to NBC News Bay Area. Vapers are not to puff anything within a 30-foot buffer of anywhere that cigarettes are banned.
Local vape enthusiasts, however, are not so easily deterred. Kyle Fisher, owner of Santa Clara Vapors, doesn’t see vape culture slowing down anytime soon.
“Customers come in and realize that they can sit and try 50 different flavors, and they start to get really into it,” said Fisher. “It’s kind of like wine tasting at this point.”
The appeal of tinkering with various pieces of the device is another part of what keeps hobbyists engaged and coming back to buy an ever-increasing number of accessories.
“The people who use vapes to quit cigarettes generally don’t care how the thing works, or what it tastes like,” said Fisher. “It’s the people who realize that they can [mess] with the hardware and sample flavors who end up going to expos, accumulating paraphernalia, and all that. It’s like being really into cars – with so much maintenance, different specs, and being able to customize it all.”
In terms of the stereotypes of vape culture, Kishan is sure to point out that not all vapers are, as the Daily Globe and Mail put it, “Ed Hardy-wearing frat pledges.”
“Yeah, some people are douchebags who want to show off and vape in restaurants and airports, but that’s not really what it’s all about,” he said.
Whether the future of vaping looks something like Napa Valley, with vape connoisseurs and sampling rooms, or if it’s just a trend that will die out, possibly disproven by long-term research, remains to be seen.
“Vape culture has its issues, I think everyone knows that,” said Kishan. “But there are some positives too. I don’t know, I guess we’ll see what happens.”