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  • Patricia Köhring

Burning Rainbows: a story on the vape infestation

Patricia Köhring undertakes a brief investigation into smoking, vapes, and what is a very twenty-first century craze:

Artwork by Alison Laing (IG: @alisonlaingart).

The covid cough might be history but our lungs have not been left in peace. A new disease has come to town but this time around it’s welcomed with open arms. It is the era of the vape sovereign, and their ruling presence is infectious. In what seems like a mere year, the disposable USB-sized devices have taken over the streets, easily recognised by their fun bright colours and their users spotted through the mist of fruity vapour left in reminiscence of each puff. And no, these sightings are not solely confined to the thrills of nightlife, but the different bars- Elfs, Solos, Geeks- have become as common as dogs in the park. Cigarettes are around, and might forever be for all we know, but the emergence of the vape and its dramatic exponential growth is fascinating, if not surprising, to observe.

Of course ‘the vape’ is not an entirely new phenomenon. Most of us growing up in the (20)10’s will remember a certain Matty Smokes and laughing at his attempt to ‘hotbox’ his car with a vape- ahh, don’t we miss the golden years of Cody Ko and his ‘That’s Cringe’ videos. We might then shamefully admit that though it was all slightly remote at first, beginning as a lame trend that the teenagers in America had going on, our own circles are now fully in tune with the vape hype. But when did everyone join in? At what point did the entire UK university scene succumb to what had previously been scorned and labelled a childish fad?

Perhaps this is another one of those developments that we can blame on the pandemic. If we think reasonably about it, such an explanation makes sense. Young people were trapped in their homes, often with their families, for months- restless, frustrated, and likely, anxious at times. Social smoking could have turned into chain smoking if it weren’t for the disapproving parents or flatmates, but a vape and its potential for being puffed in sweet discretion without putting a foot outdoors, might have been an all-too attractive alternative. After the months of lockdown, in this scenario, it might then have continued into the current ‘life-returned-to-normal’ with a little help of addiction that the nicotine + fun fruit flavouring has shown to induce.

Nonetheless, let’s not get ahead of ourselves; blaming this widespread craze on our unfortunate affiliations with the coronavirus seems a rather lazy resort. It cannot be that the only factor leading to our infatuation with the vape is the pandemic and its effect on us. The consumer might choose to consume, but they can also always be externally provoked to do so. In the case of the vape, there is the obvious social factor that we might touch on briefly to begin with. The device is easily shared at parties and elsewhere; again, not only can it be smoked indoors, but it is also less reluctant to burn out and hastily disposed of than the cigarette- which, in my theory, makes people more willing to share their nicotine. An extension of my dull and predictable verdict then; once a number of people who were more prone to the call of the stimulant began their descent, their friends inevitably joined what became the mass submission to the vape.

The social dilemma of ‘peer pressure’ is nothing unheard of, so it is more interesting still, to turn to the inevitable contributions of businesses and the public sector to these smoking habits. Initially, I for one, thought of the disposable vapes as a vaguely illicit affair, something related to illegitimate trade; not quite the black market, but perhaps a slightly unauthorised good that the government was pretending not to acknowledge. As the devices started to increase their appearance in shop windows however, I realised that such an assumption might have been unfounded. ‘The Vaping Specialists’ group, VPZ, have become increasingly prominent and noticeable with their striking green shops and homogeneous line of products. Promoting themselves as the ‘No. 1 UK Vape Retailer’, the company has, quite ironically, announced their mission to spearhead “the fight against the nation's number one killer - smoking”. During an interview with The Scotsman last April, the director of the company, Doug Mutter, revealed a plan to open up ten new stores in Edinburgh alone for the purpose of expanding their conglomerate and tackling issues of unauthorised vape sales to minors- a practice which Mutter suggested that smaller businesses are infamous for. Lacking in scientific knowledge about the difference in the chemical compositions of vapes from bargain stores versus chains like VPZ, the message I conceive is merely that the product itself is endorsed by the public as long as it is elegantly commercialised and, probably more importantly, taxed.

VPZ or not, the intuitive dilemma remains the same; smoking, no matter the form it takes, cannot be good for us. In 2017 the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care proposed a plan for the cessation of cigarette smokers for the end of 2022, and a long-term alternative that the NHS proposed were e-cigarettes. Contradictory to such preferences are the new research articles continuously released, that warn us of the various health consequences linked to vaping. Besides symptoms like a cough, shortness of breath and phlegm(gross I know), specialists in the US have found that e-cigarettes have in a number of cases resulted in more severe pulmonary illnesses such as “spontaneous pneumothorax, acute eosinophilic pneumonia, respiratory bronchiolitis-associated interstitial lung disease, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, organising pneumonia, and acute exogenous lipoid pneumonia”. Now, I am not entirely comfortable with the precise details of these various diseases, but anyone can agree that the prospect of developing even one of them is not appealing.

Anyhow, to lighten things up a little, I decided to investigate the usage as well as the selling of vapes in Edinburgh a little further. Attending your average Edinburgh flat party the other day, I engaged a fellow student in a discussion about his vaping habits. The conversation proceeded as follows-

Speaking to a fellow Elf Bar fiend:

Q: So, how long have you been smoking for?

A: It’s hard to say because I had my first cigarette when I was twelve [yikes]. So nine years.

Q: How often do you use your vape now then?

A: Haha, all day every day.

Q: Did you transition from cigarettes?

A: I smoked some during the summer but really I only smoke cigarettes when I’m really drunk.

Q: What’s the appeal of the vape?

A: It’s more of a habit. When I was at university yesterday and I didn’t have it I got very stressed. I was like I really need the vape to focus.

Q: Are you planning on stopping?

A: No. Not at the moment…

I have partaken in a number of very similar conversations before and since, but the general consensus amongst vape users our age seems to be that a) vaping very quickly develops into a habit that is hard to get rid of (and half of the people I spoke to did not have plans to do so in the first place), b) that increased smoking is connected not only to drinking but also to work and stress, and c) that vaping is an enjoyable occupation with seemingly few repercussions for its users (price being one and health, though less blatantly so, being another).

To make my pseudo-investigation more nuanced I also endeavoured to speak with a vape seller. After a late-night shift at the restaurant I work in, I decided to pop by my most frequented corner store on Lothian Road. Like most other shops of this kind, the store boasts a miscellanea of goods that might appeal to anyone at any time of the day; ranging from beverages to chewing gum, postcards and make-up wipes, but most importantly for this article- disposable vapes. I have entered this particular shop on many occasions and for various reasons, so with a certain familiarity I decided to strike a conversation with the shopkeeper. Fortunately, though potentially embarrassingly, he recognised me before I began my interrogation of his vape sales. Though the conversation betrays a casualness that refrains me from officially titling it a Q&A session, I shall keep insisting on the dialogue being structured in this way, with my speech marked by a Q and the shopkeepers an A (for continuity if nothing else).

In Conversation with the keeper of Lifestyle Express:

Q: Hi again

A: Hi, which flavour [of Elf Bar] today?

Q: Hmm maybe kiwi-passionfruit-guava?

A: Yeah, that’s a good one.

Q: Do you smoke these yourself?

A: The Elf Bar? Yeah, all the time. I try a new flavour everyday haha. Right now I’ve got cotton candy. I think I might have tried them all by now.

Q: So is the Elf Bar the most popular ‘brand’ of disposable vapes then?

A: Yeah, right now for sure.

Q: How many of them do you sell a day, roughly?

A: I’d say probably ten boxes.

Q: Oh right, how many are in a box then?

A: Ten devices per box. So that’s 100 of them gone everyday.

Q: It must be good for business in that case?

A: Yeah, it gives us all the more reason to stay up late. You know, with all the people coming in at night wanting one.

Essentially my reason for including this nocturnal ramble is to highlight two things: one, that the sale of vapes is a diversification which thus far has yielded only success for small businesses, and two, that The Notorious B.I.G’s slogan, “never get high, on your own supply”, has evidently been rebuked for this exceptionally addictive drug.

As a final note, if you have managed to read through this entire article, thank you. I cannot pretend to imagine that I have communicated anything exceptionally illuminating, but hopefully this overview of a device, so incorporated in our lives today, has put into written words what many of us have already thought or heard about the vape and its undeniable prominence. Whether you vape or not, for now, it looks like the trend has turned into a commodity that is here to stay.


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