The puzzling popularity of vape

How electronic cigarettes have changed the perception of nicotine on the University of Nebraska campus

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Junior entrepreneurship major Spencer Hosch sized me up between deep, crackling rips of his VooPoo Drag 157W TC Box Mod with skeptical eyes, probably reconsidering his agreement to sit down and talk to me about his vape habit. The dense fog leaked and crawled out of his mouth as he asked me to try it. I did.

Everybody does it these days, it seems.

As I returned what at first glance might be a walkie-talkie back to Hosch, he cracked a little smile. I guessed I had proven myself.

Hosch chewed a can of tobacco per day– Copenhagen mint, he reminded me– before he discovered electronic cigarettes in 2017.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that vaping has saved my gums,” Hosch explained. “I was a 6-year user of chewing tobacco; I was going through a can of chew per day.”

As it turns out, there are other benefits to trading in the can for the vape.

“My girlfriend hated when I chewed. Couldn’t stand me with a chew in.” Hosch admitted. “Finally, I bought the vape, and she thinks it’s super cool.”

‘Super cool’ was a description that got me thinking. When, in the years since the late 15th century when tobacco products were brought to America, have people described nicotine consumption as “cool?” (Apart from when Judd Nelson’s The Breakfast Club edgy character John Bender smoked cigarettes in the lunchroom at detention)

What changed? Why, as sophomore finance student Matthew Blair estimated, do “most college students vape?”

Blair and his roomate Max White laughed when I mentioned college kids vaping as an off-ramp from traditional tobacco products. I asked a logical question: “why do you vape, then?” Their identical responses were equal part candid and simple: “the buzz.”

“Nobody used tobacco in high school,” White suggested blatantly. “Cigarettes are gross, and baseball players are the only ones who have ever seen a can of dip. JUULs are different, though.” Blair agreed, and added: “it also helps that you can easily hide a JUUL. That’s why so many high school and middle school kids are doing it.”

The roommates have been juuling since last year. Their use of the word as a verb is worth noting, even for the titanic e-cig manufacturer JUUL, which was valued at $38 Billion in December of 2018.  That’s how much it has become a household name.

The JUUL is a sleek, lightweight device that aesthetically could be easily mistaken for a flashdrive. Functionally, the device operates on a pod system, where the user replaces each pod at the top of the vape. According to Truth Initiative, one JUUL pod contains 20 cigarettes of nicotine.

That might suggest one component of the monumental uptick in nicotine use that kids are seeing amongst their colleagues– addiction.

Maybe there is no cultural difference between last generation’s cigarettes and my generation’s cigarettes. Maybe this is exactly what it was like when everyone wanted to be John Bender, except now we use USB charging cords instead of Zippo lighters. At the end of the day, it’s all the same.

Bret Klabunde thinks not. The 21 year old, 240 pound aspiring bodybuilder thinks that regardless of the reason, vape is a bad idea. Worse, even, than cigarettes.

“We have absolutely no idea what the health implications are when we pump our lungs with that shit; that’s what scares me the most.” 

Klabunde thinks it’s similar to the early days of cigarettes, when doctors would endorse cigarette brands, when there was practically no research about the implications of smoking combustible cigarettes.

Klabunde, an aspiring professional weightlifter/ bodybuilder, placed 3rd at a recent competition in Omaha.

“One pod contains, what, like a pack of cigarettes?” Klabunde continued. “I know kids that use two pods a day. How many people even smoke that many cigarettes?” He went so far as to call the JUUL an “adult pacifier.”

The combination of convenience, style and addictive properties of electronic cigarettes have combined to form a mother’s worst nightmare and a CEO’s most desirable fantasy. Vapes can’t possibly be a mere fad, touching this generation of college students without leaving any fingerprints. Perhaps it’s like Klabunde said, since we really don’t know ‘what’s in that shit.’

Maybe the juuling roommates are right, and every current user won’t be able to ditch that buzz, which will inevitably evolve– if it hasn’t already– to a crippling addiction.

One thing seems to be for certain: the vape is different from traditional nicotine products, and it’s already worth more than its ostensible purpose as a safe alternative to tobacco users. 

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