V for Vaping: E-cigarettes and the new smoking culture

V for Vaping: E-cigarettes and the new smoking culture
The method is simple. First flip open the pack charging case. Then pull out the battery and screw on the atomiser. Once the unit is assembled, 25-year-old Ajinkya Bhonsle uses the device to start vaping. For the uninitiated, vaping is the term used for smoking e-cigarettes. And for Bhonsle, the advertised health benefits have been a reason good enough to invest $80 (roughly Rs. 4880) to purchase a Blu e-cigarette starter kit in the US. "It's more clean and healthy," he says, adding, "There is no staining and after-smell as compared to a regular cigarette, and I have stopped smoking normal cigarettes completely. Vaping is just a cleaner and healthier option for me."

While that's a belief that many people who use e-cigarettes share, it's probably pretty far from the truth. As per the United States Food and Drug Administration, the American agency that monitors food safety, tobacco products, medicines and various other health related issues, there have been several adverse events related to e-cigarettes reported by healthcare professionals and consumers. The latest version of its page on e-cigarettes, updated in January 2014, mentions pneumonia, congestive heart failure and hypotension as just some of the events that have been possibly linked to e-cigarettes.

Despite this, over the last eight years the number of people switching over to vaping from cigarettes has been huge. This is despite the fact that there is a wealth of contradictory research pointing, one way or the other, to the actual impact that these e-cigarettes have on our bodies.

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Primarily, an e-cigarette comprises a battery and a screw-on atomiser. The atomiser unit also houses the nicotine-based liquid. When you take a drag, the battery unit heats up, which also signifies the glowing tip. This results in vaporising the liquid which is inhaled by the user, and exhaled as water vapour. Vaping is also being looked upon as a social activity. For instance, Blu cigarette packs come with an inbuilt social-networking feature. On pressing a switch located on the right hand side, next to the charging indicators, it vibrates loudly twice to signify that the device has gone online. What it does is detect other Blu cig users in the vicinity of 50 feet. The idea as the company says is, "Smoking is a social activity, we want to do the same with Blu cigs." Interestingly, this is another novel method in which the vaping fad has caught up with people.

The smokeless smokers
E-cigarettes makers have taken at least one leaf from the tobacco industry's playbook - marketing. A brand like Blu has paid celebrity endorsements on its website and also plenty of celebrity users. The website has images of severalactors including Jenny McCarthy, who says 'Freedom to have a cigarette without the guilt'. Actor Stephan Dorff is also an endorser of the brand. On the other hand actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who had recently sported a Blu cig at the Golden Globe awards, told the Associate Press in a report that he vapes to relieve stress.

Celebrity endorsement is one aspect, but the viral marketing also goes a long way in promoting the product. Without getting into the health aspect of the same, the reason why vaping has found an audience is because promoters are portraying it as the 'next cool thing to do'. Located near Soho in NYC is 'The Henley Vaporium'. A direct retail outlet of Henleycigs.com, the Vaporium, in addition to selling its products and stocking other batteries and liquids used in vaping, also educates smokers to the concept of Vaping. On its website, the description for the Vaporium reads - Not your father's smokeshop.

The mission of the Vaporium is to educate vapers about the variety of new products on the market. A vaper can come and sample new e-liquid flavours (from a full-list on its menu) as well as interact with the Vapologists. The place is not inexpensive, considering that a flavour like Smoked Custard (on its menu) from Nick's Blissful Brews can set a user back by as much as $26 (roughly Rs. 1600) for a 30ml bottle. But outlets like these that are trying to educate smokers and convert them to vapers are doing something important - giving a shot in the arm to the number of people joining the bandwagon. The liquids come in 15ml and 30ml packs with varying nicotine strengths on them from 6mg to 18mg.

In India, you won't find any of these products at retail outlets, but many e-commerce sites now stock them. Rupesh Singhania, a 34-year-old Delhi-based freelance writer, says he buys coffee flavoured e-cigarettes regularly from Snapdeal. He says that the price fluctuates, but you can get the equivalent of four packs of cigarettes for under Rs. 500. "It isn't actually four packs worth, and because I can use it at home without bothering my wife who is a non-smoker, I think I puff a lot more than before anyway. But you can get a lot of different flavours, it's cheap, and it feels healthier. I know it probably isn't but it still feels like it."

Singhania was smoking a pack of Classic Milds every three days, he says, and now he's spending around Rs. 500 every week on e-cigarettes. He says, "I was worried at first that this would be really expensive - as a freelancer I'm usually not overflowing with cash, you know," he quips, adding, "but even if I wasn't a smoker, I probably would have wanted to try and smoke an e-cigarette anyway. It's so cool and high-tech! You inhale a little air and you get your kick and the tip of this plastic cylinder lights up? It's crazy, I love it."

The rush has hit India in the recent past and has found a growing sense of acceptance. So much so that it is not uncommon to find locally made e-cigarettes retailing for as less as Rs. 300. Software professional Aritra Sarkar, based out of Mumbai, has been a vaper since 2012. A visit to the doctor two years back convinced him to change his smoking habits and preferences. "I don't know how healthy it is, honestly, but I have given up smoking normal cigarettes completely. I took to vaping to wean myself off smoking and it helped. People do come up and ask once in a while, as to what I am smoking (when I use my e-cigarette)," he says.

Earlier, Sarkar says, he was smoking a pack a day: "I smoked Marlboro Red. And I had been smoking since I was 16. Ten years later, the signs started to show. I went and got myself checked by a doctor, and X-rays revealed that there was a 4mm spot on my lung. That image was an eye opener."

Talking to several people who use e-cigarettes, a picture begins to emerge. Ameetha Prakash, a 28-year-old marketing consultant based in Bangalore, is a fairly typical example. Living in a major metro, most of the buyers we found were young and upwardly mobile; busy at work but still keen on having an active social life. We saw people who were young enough to be comfortable adopting new technology, but old enough to start caring about their health. That's why the e-cigarette makers ensure that their product is seen as healthy, with or without any scientific evidence to back up their claims.

Prakash, who first used an e-cigar while on a business trip to the United States, bought one immediately. She says, "I started smoking when I was 13, thanks to some very stupid friends in school. I was equally stupid considering that I continued to smoke for a dozen years. I had stopped smoking because my throat used to feel very painful but old habits die hard, and between 23 and 25 I must have 'quit' a hundred times. But since I started to use the e-cigar, I've not picked up a cigarette any more."

Instead, she buys three or four e-cigars every time she travels to the United States, and gets friends to bring them back for her as well. "I have tried some of the local brands available here, but I was never a fan. Some of the ones I've tried didn't produce enough vapour, and in some of the others, the flavour was too weak. And most of them leave a bad aftertaste. So I just get them from the US thanks to work and friends."

At crossroads: The e-cigarette
The fact that the national airline carrier Air India, too has decided to sell e-cigarettes on board its flights, also shows the tremendous growing popularity of the same. The decision might have not gone down too well with the Ministry of Health but it shows how more and more companies are jumping in to cash in on their popularity. The WHO, in a 2013 report, strongly urged users to stay away from e-cigarettes till a regulatory body approves their usage and consumption. But with more and more smokers and even non-smokers taking to vaping as an alternative to smoking, it looks like as though vaping is here to stay.

(Also see: Britain proposes ban on sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s)

On the face of it, the biggest selling point for vaping and e-cigarettes is that outside of nicotine the marketing for them suggests that it is completely hygienic and safe to use. However, the actual reports are a lot less positive. Some people also raise concerns that e-cigarettes could be a gateway drug for youngsters, who could then take up smoking regular cigarettes after some time.

SKYCIG, which is based out of the UK and has around two lakh customers, writes on its official website, 'We believe our electronic cigarettes provide a viable, realistic alternative to tobacco, and so do over 200,000 other people who already use SKYCIG.' Henley cigs on the other hand believes that using e-cigarettes helps to drastically reduce the consumption of cigarettes, and then reduce the nicotine intake to zero eventually. Even though the health aspect is debatable, with all the conflicting reports coming in, there is a fad value to vaping too. Another reason why a lot of smokers convert to vaping is because of another important marketing trait. A lot of e-cigarette brands advertise their products as 'having nicotine, which is highly addictive, but also free of tar and 4000 other hazardous chemicals found in cigarettes'.

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And users seem to buy into the idea. Meenakshi Rao, a Mumbai-based interior design consultant, says, "Of course it's healthier. There's no tar and there's nothing being burned. It's just steam that I'm taking in. What's wrong with that?" She's unmoved by the fact that there are a lot of conflicting studies, and says that she isn't going to stop smoking, and adds, "I don't think they're healthy. But I think they are less unhealthy." Rao spends close to Rs. 5,000 each month on Smokefree brand e-cigarettes, which she buys online. For her, it's a lifestyle choice, as most of her friends are people who either never smoked, or have quit smoking.

"Earlier, if I was spending time with my friends, then I was a pariah, who'd have to go out and stand alone to smoke in the balcony while everyone else was together inside. No one minds when I puff on an e-cig, because there's no smoke or smell," she says, and adds in an exasperated voice, "Of course some people still complain, but it's not like earlier. And I don't use my Smokefree in public spaces like restaurants or movie halls. There is nothing wrong with using them in those places because it doesn't affect people, but once, when I tried to take a puff in a restaurant this woman at the next table started to complain really loudly, so it's just not worth the hassle."

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