Inside the megabucks trend taking over every high street in Britain
By 2pm, visibility is down to about 20 metres.
A fog hangs in the air, its inescapable aroma – potent toffee popcorn reminiscent of a cinema foyer – cloys in the back of the throat. Every few seconds, another punter ejects a new plume of dense, sweet-smelling vapour – like a dragon that’s gorged itself on pick’n’mix – which drifts gently upwards and adds to the thickening haze. There may be no proven dangers to inhaling secondhand vape, but it doesn’t half give you a headache.
The setting for this misty scene is one of the cavernous exhibition halls that make up ExCeL London, a convention centre that has played host to mega meet-ups from Grand Designs Live and ComicCon to the London 2012 Olympics. Today, it is home to Vape Jam, the fourth annual instalment of the UK’s biggest vaping expo. Over the course of three days, thousands of vapers and vape industry insiders will pass through this hall, getting acquainted with new brands, testing out the latest devices and experimenting with the myriad flavours on offer.
The look and feel is somewhere between a Real Ale festival and a gaming convention. One-hundred and thirty-eight stands offer an eclectic mix of gaudy signage, flashing video screens, and competing nightclub-volume audio assaults – grime, drum’n’bass, heavy metal – all adding to the sensory overload. Punters, overwhelmingly male, are handed promotional T-shirts and e-liquid samplers by a retinue of scantily clad promo girls. And all the while, they are vaping. In their thousands, they are vaping. The vaping: it is incessant.
For the uninitiated, it is all a bit odd. It feels like only yesterday that people first started tugging on e-cigarettes in offices, on trains, in restaurants (until they weren’t allowed to anymore). Today, practically every high street in Britain has a vape shop or vape lounge or possibly both – the latest figures show that there are around 2,000 such stores nationwide. And business is booming. Thanks to the UK’s estimated 2.9 million vapers, the industry is now worth £1bn. That’s predicted to double by 2020.
The numbers are impressive. And as more and more smokers continue to turn their backs on cancer-causing, money-draining cigarettes to look for new, safer ways to get their nicotine hit, vaping’s popularity will continue to swell. But speaking as a non-smoker and a non-vaper, there is still one glaring difference between vaping and the practice that it has been designed to eradicate: it just looks a bit, you know, lame.
Smoking, due in part to its ubiquity, in part to celebrity endorsements, and in very-large-part to an expensive and assiduous marketing strategy from the tobacco companies, has long been thought of as cool. James Dean, James Bond, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Serge Gainsbourg, Ryan Gosling in Drive – cool incarnate, style icons, and smokers the lot of them. A cigarette gripped between forefinger and thumb, or perched rakishly in the corner of the mouth was, until recently, international shorthand for chic. Vaping, with its enormous, inelegant apparatus and silly butterscotch-scented vapour clouds just doesn’t have the same debonair associations.
Or at least, that’s what you think. A study published by San Diego University last year showed that for the first time, “social image” had overtaken “health reasons” as the number one motivation for taking up vaping. Could puffing on a flavoured cocktail of vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol actually be starting to become… cool?
The current scene at Vape Jam suggests otherwise. A considerable rabble has assembled in front of the Dinner Lady stand, which has been constructed to look like a Fifties diner. Models dressed in Americana-inspired pink outfits – a bit like extras from Grease 2 – are tossing out freebies. Escaping the fray, I’m drawn to a far smaller, less crowded stall, its vinyl walls adorned with an artful, pastel-coloured illustration. It is one of the few pieces of branding that would look out of place at a Real Ale festival, and purposefully so.
“There’s lots of bright, brash colours and gimmicky branding out there,” says Matt Ellis signalling to the surrounding concessions. An illustrator-come-brand designer by trade, Ellis, 30, is the affable, heavily bearded man behind his Vape Dodo brand’s eye-catching illustrations. “Some of the other stuff is very heavy metal, some of it’s a bit punk, and you get some lairy tat. We decided to do something much more refined, considered, boutique. More like what you’d associate with the craft beer scene.” And it works: you wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you saw Ellis’s illustrations on the bottle of a lightly hopped session IPA. “People want to try something different; we’re tapping into that aficionado culture.”
There’s certainly no shortage of aficionados here. The Ennequadro Mods stand sits in a corner of the Vape Jam arena known as the Modders’ Block, where small-scale independent makers display and sell their limited-edition mods – the units that house the device’s battery and flavoured e-liquid (or vape juice). And it is heaving. Blokes – and again, it is almost exclusively blokes – are literally queuing up to check out these one-off machines.
“Our customers are collectors; the people that are into higher-end, more artisan, more unique stuff,” says Sam Elliott, a shaven-headed and bestubbled East Midlander with a Leicester City tattoo on his left forearm. Sam is speaking on behalf of his friend Giorgio Nugnes, a former architect and founder of Ennequadro Mods. Nugnes, whose English is not the best, has travelled over from his home in Naples, where he designs mods that sell for upwards of €500.
“It’s like any hobby,” says Elliott. “Some people are really into their cars, and they want something special, something unique, something different. That’s the most obvious comparison, and that’s where this business has stemmed from.”
While people wait patiently to check out Nugnes’ wares, they’re talking bottom feeders, squonkers, mech mods and other mostly impenetrable jargon. It is baffling.
It’s also very male. While there’s no data to suggest that the vaping demographic is anything other than equally split between men and women, Vape Jam is a sausage fest akin to a FTSE 100 boardroom. Not that that should come as a surprise; an event like this is not for the part-timer. It attracts the hobbyists, the obsessives, the geeks. The same kind of geeks that like pulling apart and reassembling an engine, or building a fixie bike from scratch.
Theirs is a proper, blokeish geekery. And it’s actually quite sweet. Hearing the passion with which people here speak about vaping, and seeing their excitement at discovering new brands and products is contagious. But cool, in a more traditional ‘James Dean’ sense? Not exactly. Or at least, not yet.
The middle-aged, tech-minded men over at the Modders’ Block represent vaping as it is today, but who represents the future? Yes, the industry has seen enormous growth in the past decade as smokers continue to be converted, but what happens when Big Vape runs out of these reformed tab-chuggers? The only sustainable long-term business model must be to entice non-smokers to the #vapelyfe.
And it’s already happening. A US government-funded study published last December revealed that more American high-school seniors had tried vaping than smoking; 35.8 per cent versus 26.6 per cent. This may have come as a shock to their parents, but it proves that among a younger generation, vaping isn’t necessarily a harm-reduction technique but a draw in its own right. As the study’s principal investigator Richard Miech put it at the time: “These findings emphasise that vaping has progressed well beyond a cigarette alternative.”
This is certainly a trend that Graham McGee has noticed. Effectively the Rupert Murdoch of the vape-related media world, McGee is the publisher of Vapour Magazine, the Vaper Trade Directory and the Vape Point catalogue, as well as owning a handful of vape retail stores. “There’s a generation of people that have come straight to vaping,” he says. “I know it’s wrong to say, but… a lot of young kids are vaping.”
Some might be concerned to hear this. And while McGee absolutely isn’t endorsing it himself, he takes a more measured view.
“If they weren’t vaping, they’d be smoking cigarettes,” he says. And vaping, surely, is by far the lesser of two evils. Isn’t it?
Since the introduction of e-cigarettes more than a decade ago, the health impacts of vaping have been hotly debated. And it still remains a tangled field to wade into, of findings and counter-findings and counter-counter-findings. This isn’t helped by the fact that many of the early studies warning people about the dangers of vaping were in fact funded by Big Tobacco; or by the fact that these studies dried up roughly around the same time that all the major tobacco companies began entering the vape market for themselves. British American Tobacco (Lucky Strike cigarettes; Ten Motives vapes), Philip Morris International (Marlboro cigarettes; Nicocigs vapes), Imperial Brands PLC (Golden Virginia tobacco; blu vapes), and many more are now engaged in a battery-powered arms race for the future of nicotine. Each is developing its own devices and its own liquids, and funding its own research.
The long-term effects on someone’s body who has gone from non-smoker to vaper are unknown. But when it comes to using vaping for harm reduction – as a stepping stone on the path to a nicotine-free life – the official advice is unequivocal. Public Health England (PHE) announced last year that “e-cigarettes could be contributing to at least 20,000 successful new quits per year, and possibly many more”.
PHE’s director for health improvement John Newton added: “Our new review reinforces the finding that vaping is a fraction of the risk of smoking, at least 95 per cent less harmful, and of negligible risk to bystanders. Yet over half of smokers either falsely believe that vaping is as harmful as smoking or just don’t know.”
Intrigued by Big Tobacco’s (not-so-obvious) presence at the generally pretty indie-feeling Vape Jam, I call George Tucker, Communications Manager at blu UK. Or rather, he calls me, after going through the PR firm instructed by blu’s parent company, Imperial Tobacco. Tucker is friendly, informed, well-prepared and about 600 per cent slicker when speaking on the subject than anyone I encountered at Vape Jam. He talks with enthusiasm about the strength of the vaping market, and vaping’s potential for harm reduction.
“We know Public Health England supports vaping and has openly stated that it’s 95 per cent less harmful,” he says. “Well, that’s a very important position, and it’s important that PHE takes the time to understand this sector and regulate it to ensure that the benefits of vaping to the consumer are nurtured and not squeezed out of existence.”
It’s not out of the realms of possibility that one day the government will regulate, tax or otherwise suffocate the vaping industry in the way that it has done with cigarettes. But for the time being, the vape business and vape culture are flourishing.
A full week after Vape Jam, I find myself curiously drawn to the Great British Vape Shop in Clerkenwell, central London. This is not your run-of-the-mill high-street vape store. It does not, as the one closest to my home does, display vape juices on one wall and fireworks on the other. The feel here is very much upmarket, more like a cross between a Bang & Olufsen showroom and a Shoreditch coffee shop. Only there is no coffee; it is instead a familiar, sweet-scented mist that penetrates your nostrils as you walk through the door.
At the back of the store are two leather Chesterfield sofas, where customers can shelter from the hustle and bustle outside over a nice, quiet vape. But the pièce de résistance is the shop’s central tasting bar, where 50 devices – tethered to the counter top by retractable cables – are pre-loaded with different flavoured juices.
It’s impossible to resist the temptation. I take a puff of some orange-flavoured Fantasi juice. “Don’t worry if you cough,” says the store’s co-founder Tim Collins, kindly. I don’t cough. (It’s more of a strangled splutter.)
I avoid making eye contact with Collins. I try again. This time the flavour – not just the vapour – hits me hard in the back of the throat. It tastes like orange Fanta! Next I try a banofee pie-flavoured juice, then lychee, then one designed to taste exactly like a hash brownie (containing a legal, THC-free cannabis oil – just one of the industry’s many new growth areas). I mark the sampling of each new flavour by expelling a sweetly satisfying cloud of dense white vapour.
And what’s more, none of these particular e-liquids contain nicotine. Suddenly, I was enquiring as to the cost of a starter kit (£35, FYI), and the comparative battery life of different devices (between a few hours and a few days). I could picture myself getting away from my desk, and standing outside in the sun with a piña colada-flavoured juice; or sitting on one of the Chesterfields at the back of the shop and blowing clouds of vapour while catching up with a friend.
Hold on. Had vaping, in my mind, become cool? Absolutely not. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe this isn’t about me, or you, or what we think. I’m reminded of someone I met at Vape Jam. Korri Alger, from Enfield in north London, is 21 years old. The occasional “social smoke” aside, as a teenager Alger barely flirted with cigarettes. Eventually, it was the social aspect that drew him to vaping two years ago. Wearing boxfresh trainers, slim-fit jeans and a black baseball jersey, Alger certainly passes muster by most modern interpretations of ‘cool’.
So what does he reckon? Could vape mods replace cigarettes as the accessories de rigueur? “For people that vape, it’s already there,” says Alger. “It’s only people that are still smoking or don’t have any information on vaping that don’t see it yet.” This is a man who has his own vape-dedicated Instagram account (@kjalger), indiscriminately dropping hashtags like #hotwires, #vapeallday, #cloudchasers and #epiccloudz. A man who watches vape videos on YouTube; who buys merch from his favourite brands. Alger’s clean-eating, six-pack-flouting, social media-savvy peers are already becoming the vapers of tomorrow. And they don’t really care what you think.
(Photography: Jamie Drew/Images: Rex)