Before I started vaping, vaping disgusted me. The headlines about lung disease were alarming, sure, but my opposition was mostly aesthetic. The word “vape” conjured images of AirPod-wearing office bros in too-tight pants, assaulting passers-by with miasmic clouds of gobstopper-flavoured steam.
The very idea that people would vaporise liquid nicotine rather than smoke tobacco seemed like something dreamed up by a second-rate science fiction author to illustrate how bland the future would be. (The fact that the new technology is now linked to a mysterious and deadly illness significantly improves the story, at least from a literary point of view).
The thing is, I smoked cigarettes, and the very real downsides of that habit were beginning to seem a lot more pressing than my theoretical objections to vaping. Smoking is miserable both physically – it makes you smell, cough and eventually die – and mentally, in that it makes you aware of how little control you have over your own decisions. It gets a little harder to pretend you enjoy tobacco each time you arrive home from the pub, pour water on your remaining cigarettes, throw away your lighters and swear you’ll never smoke again. In fact, by the third night in a row I find it’s virtually impossible.
So despite my misgivings, earlier last year I decided it was time to become a vape lord. I figured it would be cheaper, better smelling and less lung clogging than smoking. I don’t claim that reasoning was good or logical, only that it was my reasoning. I went out in Toronto and bought a Juul, which in case you haven’t been paying attention is something like the iPhone of vapes, only more popular with teenagers. It’s a nifty piece of kit, all smooth and dark, with a pulsing LED light and a magnetic USB charger.
My first puff felt like a pair of tiny, dry fingers were pinching my uvula. I coughed my guts up. Apparently, this is normal. It took a few attempts to get used to, but say what you want about smokers: we know how to endure an objectively unpleasant experience until it becomes faintly enjoyable.
And faintly enjoyable it was. The vapour is easier to inhale than cigarette smoke, though a little anaemic in comparison. Nicotine, vaping helps you to realise, is a pretty pathetic drug. When you strip away the ritual of lighting up and scorching your lungs, you realise that the ritual and the scorching of the lungs were a large part of the appeal. (Research on the health effects of vaping is not yet conclusive enough to tell whether it’s an effective way of indulging the death drive, though the news on this front is more promising every day).
Which is not to say that vaping isn’t addictive. In fact, I found it far more addictive than smoking because, for all its many faults, smoking is an analogue technology that involves lighting something on fire. This imposes certain inbuilt consumption limits. Smoking sets off smoke detectors and landlords and makes your soft furnishings smell, so you generally avoid doing it indoors. It leaves a foul taste in your mouth and clogs your lungs, so you try not to do it every minute of the day.
This is not true of vaping. You can Juul when you wake up, Juul while writing, Juul on camping trips, Juul at the airport, Juul in bed. The Juul stores a packet of cigarettes’ worth of nicotine in a container the size of your thumbnail. It snaps, crackles and pops in satisfying ways. It is a supremely well-designed little addiction stick.
Within a few weeks my habit was so ingrained that the thought of a trip home to Australia, where the retail sale of e-cigarettes containing liquid nicotine is banned, threw me into a state of anxiety. How was I going to get my fix? Would I get busted if I brought pods through customs?
How would I explain that to my cellmate? “What’d they get you for, mate? Coke? Shard? Fentanyl?”
“Actually, it was a packet of mint Juuls.”
I needn’t have worried. Like all prohibitions, Australia’s policy has created a black market, and a thriving one if my experience is anything to go on.
“Are you a fed?” I was asked by one Sydney tobacconist, cinematically.
“Er, no,” I replied.
He shrugged as if he hadn’t really cared in the first place and opened a yellowed microwave oven behind the counter, revealing six packets of pods stacked on the lazy Susan.
“Only tobacco and fruit salad left,” he said, spreading them on the counter like a hand of cards. What a thrill. I took one of each.
A week later, I asked another tobacconist what flavours he had in stock. He waved his hand stylishly: “All of them.”
It would have been even easier, though perhaps less enjoyable, to have bought them from one of the dozens of websites that offer pods shipped express from the US at a mere 50% mark up.
In any case, maintaining and intensifying my addiction was no trouble. Soon I was spending a good part of each day enduring pressure headaches brought on by too much nicotine. They would clear up if I went for a walk, but that was easier said than done. Much easier to lie on the couch, helplessly Juuling through my discomfort.
I began to suspect that all the cutting edge technology and modern industrial design in this little addiction machine were not there for my benefit.
Vaping was making me feel just as bad as smoking. Addiction, whether to cigarettes or alcohol or liquid nicotine, forces you to confront how pathetic and powerless you are, how little agency you have, how the idea of free will is a bad joke in the face of the body’s needs. This is probably true for all of us, but non-addicts at least get to pretend they’re in control.
That’s why after leaving the pub one night last month, I decided to take another cue from the teens and destroy my device. I threw the stick in a dumpster, poured water on the charger and swore I’d never vape again. That was two Juuls ago now.