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From big rigs to dispies – since when was vaping cool?

by Sam Clark (he/him)


illustrations by Haydn Nixon (he/him)

Vaping used to be all about huge clouds, blowing o’s and devices that looked like walkie-talkies. Now, they’re sleek, affordable and maybe even cool. What’s changed?

Professor of Public Health at the University of Auckland, Chris Bullen, recalls the first e-cigarettes arriving from China – but he never expected them to take off the way they have.

He says, “Over a decade, vapes have become a lot more sophisticated, reliable and deliver more nicotine more quickly – like cigarettes.” He explains that the look and feel of these products are hugely appealing, paired with enjoyable flavours.

The ‘pull’ on these devices is also designed to be tighter, imitating a cigarette. They even look like them - with modern products favouring long, slender designs, over the boxy, flashy ones of the past.

Bullen explains how these new devices are small and discreet, and have a small cloud with interesting flavours.

“The product marketing and normalisation of vaping as a lifestyle option for people changed the game in the last few years,” he says.

Then there’s the price - your typical disposable vape costs $10 and lasts a few days. That’s compared to a pack of twenty cigarettes, which costs up to four times the price. The expense is only one aspect of the government’s smokefree strategy, recently banning smoking for the next generation. Of course, all cigarette packaging is now plain – it’s actually ‘the ugliest colour in the world’, Pantone 448C. Australia was the first country to roll this out and has taken a similarly hardline approach with vaping, making them prescription-only.

However, ReNews recently published an article on how Australia’s ban on vapes has led to a black market. What can we learn from this?

In Aotearoa, the government has been a bit more relaxed – vapes can still be bought at liquor stores, dairies and petrol stations. There’s about seven vape stores in walking distance from AUT City Campus - and even more if you count dairies.

The government has also proposed: • Limiting the concentration of nicotine salts in disposable vapes • Restricting the names of flavours • Considering new vape retailers’ proximity to places like schools and sports grounds

“Before you know it, you’re doing it all the time”

Chris Bullen says that the quality and convenience of vape products in Aotearoa means that many young people are vaping without ever having smoked. And for many of them, it’s a social activity.

University graduate, James* says most of his friends vape, but some manage to limit it to social occasions. He started out the same, but slowly began vaping outside of parties. “Before you know it, you’re doing it all the time,” he says.

Smoking has a few extra steps - often you have to go out on your own and the smell lingers for a while. But it’s become very tricky to enforce rules like ‘no vaping on campus’, because the clouds are so discreet. People can get away with vaping in lecture halls, or at their desks.

James vapes throughout the day at work, usually in the bathrooms – and at home he vapes all the time.

These days ‘mod’ devices – (replaceable coils, adjustable settings) are few and far between, and refillable devices are quickly being replaced by disposables, which are ready to use as soon as you tear them open.

Another young worker, Bella*, uses disposable vapes occasionally. She says “Instead of blowing o’s and big clouds, it’s more sneaky now. It makes it easier to be constantly vaping.”

“There’s no signal you’ve finished a ciggy, it’s just infinite. You can’t really track how much you’re consuming.”

Bella also says she believes part of the reason disposables are so popular at the moment is because of the design and colour. She says people even match them with their outfits.

Bullen says that like any trend, a big driving factor is the people you see using a product. And of course, the marketing.

*Names have been changed.

‘Big bad vape’

The tobacco industry is known for its aggressive advertising and marketing - and some are worried that vaping companies may start using similar tactics as they grow in influence.

Chris Bullen says that you could argue that vape marketing has been targeted at young non-smokers, making it seem like a cool thing to do. But he doesn’t see a ‘big bad vape’ in Aotearoa, at least not to the same extent as tobacco companies.

He explains that in Aotearoa, the main difference is that the vaping industry is mostly run by boutique retailers, who are focused on helping people quit smoking. He says the situation is a bit more problematic elsewhere, as tobacco companies buy shares in successful vaping companies to control the market.

In Aotearoa, there are a few vaping brands owned by tobacco companies. For example Vuse is owned by British American Tobacco and Iqos and Juul are owned by Philip Morris International. In 2019, RNZ revealed that Philip Morris was targeting Māori by visiting marae and sports clubs to offer free trials and discounts.

Bullen says that over time, it’s possible that corporatisation of vape companies (and possibly behind them, big tobacco) could lead to similar marketing tactics.

Risky business Bullen says that part of the appeal of vaping is its risk - much like smoking. “It’s something your parents don’t want you to do, which is appealing to young people.”

He also attributes the rise of disposable vapes amongst young people to how easily they can be exchanged and sold at school without the teacher noticing.

However, Bullen says “Disposables are having a heyday at the moment, but something else will probably take their place in the next few years.”

At the end of the day, Bullen says that nicotine is the real problem. “Once people start using them, the nicotine can dig in and make it difficult... that’ll drive their behaviour.”

“Buying the occasional vape to puff on at a party is one thing, but buying them every week and waking up in the early hours of the morning needing to have a puff – that suggests that you’ve got a problem.”

James says, “I would quit if I got really sick or got an illness directly caused by vaping – or if all my mates didn't do it and it wasn't normalised.”

What now? Chris Bullen says “ I hope our government is enlightened enough to make sure that for people who want to switch to vaping... That vapes are available, they’re competitive prices to cigarettes, relatively accessible, high quality and safe to use.”

In the meantime, disposables are in, tobacco companies are still raking it in and many young people are vaping, having never smoked. Vapes are also cheap, and sold virtually everywhere. It’s unlikely we’ll see an outright ban like in Australia, but tighter regulations could be on their way. Even if it’s safer than smoking, vaping is still an addictive, and eventually expensive habit.


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