I like to think of myself as a healthy, calm lady-boss who aims to inspire others. My morning routine consists of transcendental meditation, light therapy and boxing before 8am. When I’m not in front of my computer or traveling for a public speaking gig, I’m usually in a hot yoga class. And so it may surprise my clients, family, and friends that I am one of the 50 million people around the globe addicted to e-cigarette juice.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Juuling”, you probably picture a teenager who rips a Juul that’s hidden in the sleeve of their hoodie, holding in the hit so as not to get caught vaping in math class, not a middle-class woman in her early 30s who gets HydraFacials and sips turmeric tea.
The juice, better known as e-liquid, in a vape or e-cigarette usually contains nicotine and other ingredients like propylene glycol, and vegetable glycerin, which is heated to create an inhalable aerosol. Juul is the most popular vaping product. Using influencer marketing and with celebrity endorsements like Dave Chappelle hitting his Juul during his 2017 Netflix special, Sophie Turner proclaiming having her Juul taken away was the secret to acting, and an Instagrammable photo of Katy Perry sporting her Juul at the Golden Globes, the company went from selling an unknown product to owning the category and from $200m in sales in 2017 to $1.3bn the following year. According to a Jama study, more than one in four students (28% of high schoolers) vape nicotine. Dr Karen Wilson of the American Academy of Pediatrics said that she sees “kids that are using four pods” –the nicotine equivalent of four packs of cigarettes – a day. Adults who vape often use it as a smoking cessation tool. And some adults have entered vape culture, mixing and selling custom flavors and labeling themselves as do-it-yourselfers, cloud chasers, sub-ohmers, coil builders or modders. When it comes to culture I appreciate, I’m more of a literature or health food aficionado. I’ve never discussed my mod or coil on Reddit, nor do I know how to blow a vape cloud in the shape of a jellyfish.
Like many, I was surprised when the number of people with a severe lung illness linked to vaping had reached over 2,600 cases and nearly 60 deaths
Yet, like the teenager we envision being naively pressured into the habit, three years ago I adopted the common belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful than other forms of tobacco. Like many, I was surprised when the number of people with a severe lung illness linked to vaping had reached over 2,600 cases and nearly 60 deaths. Recently, we’ve learned that the key culprit behind those illnesses is probably black market THC vapes using specific additives including a form of vitamin E. Even so, the FDA and Trump administration are pushing for a national ban on most e-cigarette flavors and San Francisco became the first major US city to ban sales altogether. Students in Texas can face felony charges and expulsions from school for having a vape in their backpacks. It’s an effort to keep the product out of the hands of teens, but the move will affect adults, too – free-thinking adults who vape for a variety of reasons such as to quit smoking or for the subculture – people like myself.
I was first introduced to vaping as a tool to quit smoking three years ago when I visited my family in Michigan. In my parents’ living room playing with my niece and nephew, my brother puffed clouds of white smoke from a device that looked like a walkie-talkie with a short antenna. My stepdad shook his head with every drag. My brother held the cloud in his mouth and said: “It’s just vape.”
Technically, I had given up my half-pack a day habit and quit smoking years before, but the urge was still there. One beer and I’d hide out in the garage with my mom bumming her Marlboro Lights in Michigan or find myself standing in the smokers’ circle outside my favorite East Village bar. Smoking was a form of social currency around other people. Alone, it offered an escape, a ceremony that felt secret and sacred.
Vaping had the same benefits but felt better than smoking because I could conceal my device in a pencil case like the colorful pens I carry around. It didn’t leave a lingering odor that others could detect. No one gives you side-eye or a judgmental cough if they can’t see or smell it. Home in Brooklyn, I noticed vaping was everywhere. Soon, a friendly guy behind a cloud of strawberry vanilla at the local smoke shop set me up with my own device.
The danger of vaping is that it’s hidden in plain sight. Smoking is banned in nearly all public spaces, but we haven’t figured out how to stop people from vaping. You can do it nearly anywhere without being noticed, and the amount of nicotine being consumed is also hidden, clicked into a sleek, Stanford University-born device. Juuls don’t create a large cloud and can easily be hidden in your hand. Airports, the movies, classrooms, places where we would never think to light up a cigarette are spaces where you can take a hit without causing a scene.
Initially, it seemed innocuous, and yet, from the beginning, it negatively affected my lifestyle. Instead of the co-working spaces and coffee shops I patronized, I soon opted to work from home so I could enjoy mid-meeting puffs of mango delight. Once, I excused myself to the bathroom during a quarterly in-person meeting with my most loyal client. In the stall, I took a small toke and held it securely in my mouth until I was certain it disappeared. My relaxing moment turned to burning fear as the fire alarm sounded throughout the building. I thought about flushing my device; instead, I ran outside to meet my colleagues with a red face. I spent the night Googling whether I had caused the alarm to sound. Although it was a routine drill, after that incident, bargaining with myself to work from home became part of my morning routine.
We need to share tangible ways for people to quit – and that information should be as easy to find as the steps to fix a leaking pod
In April, when I started boxing, my hunch that vaping was hurting my body was solidified. As soon as I got good enough to throw a strong jab, the congestion in my lungs hit like a body shot and moved its way up my torso until my ears were plugged. It was time for me to quit.
It’s no surprise that experts say withdrawal from vaping can be more challenging than quitting conventional cigarettes. The first time I tried to break my own two-pod-a-day addiction, I promised myself I wouldn’t buy another pack. I changed my walking route so I wouldn’t pass my local smoke shop every night. But by mid-morning of day one, I searched pockets of pants in my dirty laundry and old purses for pods with enough juice to get me through the day. I ended up watching a YouTube video where a shirtless high schooler with a seashell necklace told me that putting a leaking pod into the freezer for three minutes would reactivate it. “Ninety-nine-point-nine of the time it works. For you kids who are addicted to this thing like I am …” But I was not a kid, I was a 31-year-old grownup. The shame I felt when I popped my last non-working pod into the freezer felt like rock bottom.
Vaping wasn’t something I could stomp out on the ground and move on from. Strong willpower, my embarrassment, and at the time, the CDC’s recommendation that people give up vaping of all kinds until the cause of the lung damage was determined – none of it mattered. The benefit of being an adult with this addiction is that I had the resources for cessation products, and if necessary I could work with an addiction specialist. It took hundreds of dollars’ worth of the highest-dose patches and a mix of nicotine mints and gum for me to stop searching for loose pods around my apartment. With 5 million teens caught in this trap, I don’t think bans on e-cigarette flavors will stop resourceful young people like the shirtless high schooler from finding ways to fend off the agitation, inability to focus, and headaches that come with trying to quit. Instead of imposing unreasonable laws, we need to figure out and share tangible ways for different people who are addicted to quit – and that information should be as easy to find as the steps to fix a leaking pod.
After I’d been off the juice for a month, I was walking to my office one morning when I saw an empty cartridge on the sidewalk. I asked myself, if this were full, would I pick it up and use it? The answer was yes. Another hit, another drag, another puff, just one more. It doesn’t have a flame, but it never burns out.