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I went to a vape convention to see what I could learn about Brexit Britain

And to learn how to blow smoke rings, obviously

I went to a vape convention to see what I could learn about Brexit Britain
20 April 2017

The first thing you learn at a Vaping show is that the people who do it don’t like being called Vapists.

There are lots of names people who vape like to refer to themselves as; Vapers is the most common, but there’s also ‘Vape Enthusiast’, a ‘Milkman’ (a term used by those who can blow really, really white vapour from their noses), and one guy who referred to himself as a ‘Vape Artist’ - who tried to convince me that he could make any animal shape out of his Vape pen (he just about managed a bird, if you squinted). But never call them Vapists.

“I’m pretty chilled,” one guy told me. Pausing to take a deep inhale and blowing out a stream of white, “milky” vapour, he added:  “But when people use that word… it’s either to deliberately provoke, or to be disrespectful to the community”.

Earlier this month, I attended Vape Jam, billed as Europe’s largest E-cigarette convention. An admission first: Despite convincing some people on my Twitter that I’m a Vape Lord – even to the point where I received a massive box of vape pens at work – I don’t smoke, and the only time I’ve ever tried to Vape, I ended up having a coughing fit on the floor while my mates laughed at me. Over the past few years, I’ve seen them give up their regular packs of Marlboro lights for these shiny, pocket-sized devices they claim have changed their life forever – whether they go to the pub, to restaurants, or even the bank, they vape. The bank. One of them actually went to withdraw money while vaping.

My friends have become obsessed with vaping – they talk about ‘coils’, ‘mods’, and ‘double chambers’ in casual conversation, wear t-shirts donning slogans like “Resident of the Vapenation” and “If I die before I wake, at least in heaven I can vape”, as if it wasn’t perfectly legal on Earth, like right now.

They even spend their weekends customising their ‘rig’ as if it was some sort of Warhammer collection.  The other week, one of them told me how his landlord thought he was making crystal meth in his flat, only to find out he was actually trying to make a pineapple-celery vape liquid, which, in my opinion, he should have been evicted for anyway.

According to the UK’s official statistical bureau, nearly 3 million out of the country’s 8 million smokers have switched to e-cigarettes. After the US and France, the UK is considered to be the biggest global vaping market. At the end of last year, industry analysts Euromonitor confirmed that UK vaping was now a billion pound industry, and that, as more smokers made the transition, that market share would only grow larger.

More pervasive, however, is the domination of vape culture in the UK. It is one that manifests in the form of city bankers vaping bubblegum candy flavours outside their offices, teachers settling down with a glass of wine and some fizzy cherry, skaters who’ll vape any type of liquid they can get their hands on.

Indeed, rather than ‘vapers’ being their own subculture, it seems to have subsumed nearly every social group in the country. I really wanted to figure out how something which was designed to prevent people thinking smoking was cool, suddenly transformed into its own movement – one where people would literally centre their entire lives around inhaling and exhaling warmed up water droplets.

It took less than 10 minutes for the ExCel centre to fill up with cloudy vapour, hovering over fluorescent disco lights, while a mix of lo-fi beats and wavy trance played in the background.

Immediately, it struck me as an odd experience. At the front of a hall, an American man gave a lecture for about five people about the state of the industry. “Here’s the problem,” he shouted, to an audience more preoccupied with their phones, “the industry is booming, but it’s getting a bad reputation… People still associate vaping with nerdy guys who live in basements and have small dicks”.

It’s an issue that many vendors admit they still face.

“Most of my clients still look to e-cigarettes as a way to stop smoking,” says Steve Soulsby, an independent ‘e-juice’ retailer based in the North of England told me. “I started selling the product in the mid-2000s when vaping was in its early days, when it was being tested for medicine.”

“But now, it’s really difficult to compete. For starters, because making or buying the product is cheaper, so the market is flooded. But second, because people want to buy the exciting product, the edgier flavours...” 

Steve said that the expansion of vape culture had created a “generational divide”; one where the market would end up catering for younger audiences with bigger kits, weirder flavours, and more emphasis on “competitive vaping” than on helping people to stop smoking. Did Steve define himself as a Vape purist? Laughing, he says “well, considering part of it is cult like, sure, why not?”

There are two sets of people in the vaping world – those who make juice, and those who make hardware. Financially speaking, it’s cheaper to make liquid, and most of the convention floor sells similar looking plastic bottles of liquid, all emblazoned with brand names like “Gorilla Vapes”, “Soft Skull Smokes” or “Ghost goo”.  Basically, take any word from the dictionary, add ‘vape’ or ‘juice’ next to it, and it’s probably either a vaping brand or about to become one.

To the vendors, each juice has its own, distinct flavours. On the higher end, they emphasise this, making it clear they use organic ingredients, fresh fruits and so on. And perhaps you figure that out the more you vape, but I still believe that every flavour basically tastes, and smells of cinema popcorn. Yes, you might be able to get a hint of strawberry or a bit of mint, but it’ll soon return back to its general candy popcorn flavour.

Photo by Hussein Kesvani

It’s because of this over-saturation that the hardware guys seem more protective over their craft. “It’s harder to make a shit rig”, this guy told me. “You can usually tell if something’s good or not by the price, the size, where the equipment’s made and ultimately, what your clouds look like”.

It was here when I found out that the vape world now has a lucrative professional scene emerging.

You might have only discovered this world recently, when 21-year-old professional vaper Austin Lawrence somehow became best mates with Drake. But according to some of the guys here, the professional vapers can now acquire million-dollar sponsorship deals, compete in “cloud chasing” tournaments around the world, and basically live like rockstars. “Vaping now is kind of what skateboarding was when it got mainstream” another vendor, from the US told me. “It’s growing so big that you’ve got kids leaving high school, and going pro as an alternative to college.” 

Really, capitalism is a beautiful thing.

Photo by Hussein Kesvani

Here was a man who made a giant vape that looks like a blue waste bin.

I don’t know why he made it. When I asked, he shrugged and then continued to blow smoke from it. I watched as he kept blowing giant smoke rings at at me, and laughing, high on life and just amazed by the giant vape. Here it was, a gigantic vape. I literally have no idea why it exists other than because it can. I’m okay with that.

Anyway, enough with the pontificating: I came here for one thing – to learn how to do a smoke ring. Here’s what I know about the smoke hoop from my mates: doing smoke rings are cool, and if you vape but can’t do a smoke ring, you’ll never, ever be a milkman. And I’d be damned if I left this place, hazy and slightly dizzy, knowing that could never be a career possibility.

Photo by Hussein Kesvani

I asked a lot of people if they could show me how, and the response I usually got was “it’s something you learn when you vape regularly”. Now, I’m not sure if these guys were messing with me or not, but all it did was more determined than ever to learn how to do this.

Eventually, I found a guy called Imraan (above) who was willing to show me. “The trick,” he says, “is to inhale a lot of vapour, keep it in for a bit, and then let it come out while you pluck your lips.”

He showed me, blowing out a series of five perfect rings, all increasing in size as they traveled through the air. He passed me his vape machine. Pursing my lips, looking like a dead fish or, worse, that image we all have of the person we’re least attracted to trying to kiss us, I let the vapour flow through me.

Out came a trail of steam. This was it. I couldn’t do it. The dream was over. I’d never be able to smoke like a pro. Until, I noticed, floating in the air, through the vapour residue, one tiny ring. That was it, the moment I had been waiting for. My victory incarnate: a blue-grey transcluscent hoop hanging in front of me. And while I was ridiculously lightheaded at this point, and all I wanted was a a cold glass of water and a sit down, it was all worth it.

And maybe this was what made vape culture so attractive. Not just the satisfaction you can get from achieving things wider society would consider mundane or irrelevant (though seemingly not, considering that you can, apparently, earn millions by blowing different variations of smoke rings). It was that the vape community was oddly warm and accepting, and let me bask in these small victories without judgement.

Sure, vaping gets a bad reputation, largely thanks to its association with atheist YouTubers and city banker bros, but dig deeper and you’ll find another vaping community that might be just as diverse, complex and passionate as any other subculture.

For these guys, vaping isn’t about the cool factor, and it isn’t about making mega bucks. If anything, it goes beyond the act of inhaling and exhaling – it’s about building networks and communities across classes, countries and continents. It’s about belief in the possibility of a real social movement, one which, according to an attendee who was smoking two vapes at once, “could really be liberating… by building these things ourselves, we control what we smoke and the way we smoke it. If anything, IT lets us show the finger to Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and anyone that wants control over our bodies”.

Maybe he had a point, this man breathing a milky fog in the ExCel convention hall – and perhaps in Brexit Britain, where none of us really know what’ll happen to us next, we could learn a thing or two from the Vapers.

(Main Image: Flickr / Macadew)