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Daryl Cura demonstrates an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago on April 23, 2014. Come May 31st, vapers won't be able to use their electronic cigarettes in indoor public spaces in Nova Scotia, and under-18s in that province won't be able to buy them. Other provinces, cities and even companies are following suit, filling the regulatory needs many wish Health Canada would fill. (Nam Y. Huh/The Canadian Press)
Daryl Cura demonstrates an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago on April 23, 2014. Come May 31st, vapers won't be able to use their electronic cigarettes in indoor public spaces in Nova Scotia, and under-18s in that province won't be able to buy them. Other provinces, cities and even companies are following suit, filling the regulatory needs many wish Health Canada would fill. (Nam Y. Huh/The Canadian Press)

I vape, therefore I am: How vaping evolved from a smoking-cessation aid into a lifestyle Add to ...

It jarred against his crisp tux and stylish stubble, but there was no mistaking the object in Leonardo DiCaprio’s hand at the SAG Awards in January. That was a vape pen, which turns liquid nicotine into vapour.

When photos of the incongruous image began to emerge, the mockery was swift and slightly delirious. “That photo of Leonardo DiCaprio vaping at the awards dinner makes it easier to watch him die at the end of Titanic. #DoucheFlute,” one Twitter user wrote.

The scorn seemed baffling. Why would something designed to help smokers quit incur the snarky wrath of the Internet hordes? But while public-health experts continue to debate the risks and benefits of such smoking-cessation aids – e-cigarettes, as most people know them – cultural critics have reached a decisive verdict: Vaping is incredibly uncool.

“Ew, no, vaping is the lamest thing ever,” wrote my 14-year-old sister, when I texted her to ask whether any cool kids at her high school vaped. “It’s like an Internet sensation how lame it is to vape.”

That level of contempt can seem odd until you start looking into the practice and culture of vaping. The self-styled “community,” divided between young, recreational vapers and older nicotine addicts, is united in its defiant tackiness.

Vapers seem to have taken their aesthetic cues from all of the least hip segments of North American society, displaying Mormonism’s evangelizing zeal along with Silicon Valley’s lust for gadgetry and a persecution complex worthy of a hall full of Donald Trump voters.

It begins with the vape pens themselves. The original e-cigarette was invented in 2003 by a Chinese pharmacist trying to quit smoking. It looked roughly like a cigarette – orange butt, white stem, a light that glowed at the end like an ember.

Since then, the “devices,” as users call them, have grown more sophisticated. Now the typical vape pen looks like a cross between a barbecue lighter and a bottle of cologne, with adjustable settings and the battery life of an iPhone. It is “vaped” with a gesture that looks disarmingly like a baby drinking its bottle: clutched with the full hand and suckled with pursed lips from a kind of nib.

The market for “e-juice” – the little cartridges of fluid that get turned into vapour – is even sillier. E-juice comes in a huge array of flavours, most of them ridiculous. Vapers, a Toronto store, offers such palate-tinglers as Strawb-Gwab (strawberry and guava) and Catherine the Grape.

These blasts of sucrose are treated with gravity by e-cig habitués, who populate YouTube with “juice reviews.” These share some of the trappings of wine criticism – the solemn attitude, the sniffing and chin stroking – but connoisseurs often wend their way to conclusions such as, “It kind of tastes like Rice Krispie treats.”

It would be easy to conclude from a perusal of this digital ecosystem that most vapers are Ed Hardy-wearing frat pledges, and a growing number are. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 22 per cent of Americans between 18 and 24 have tried e-cigs.

But most people who vape still do it to quit smoking. Sung Pyo Hong, who runs a head-shop-cum-vaping emporium called Bloor Gift & Smoke in Toronto, says that about 80 per cent of his customers are hardened smokers trying to kick tobacco.

These serious practitioners sometimes resent the showier recent converts, who are known as “cloud chasers” for their attempts to exhale great billowing reams of vapour.

“I think it’s the wrong thing. It’s moving into more recreation,” said Aron van Osnabrugge, a smoker for 10 years and now a vaper for two, stocking up on e-juice at Bloor Gift & Smoke. “The more mature vapers, you’re not going to see them blowing big clouds when they’re around other people.”

In stark contrast with the Web-native slickness of Vaping Twitter and Vaping Instagram, vaping websites (remember those?) tend to be shabby-looking and homemade, striking a tone of sincere advocacy.

The testimonial that leads CanadaVapes.com, for example, sounds for all the world like the beginning of an AA meeting: “My name is Howie. I started using my e-cigarette in January of 2010, after a 17 year battle with cigarettes. I haven’t had a tobacco cigarette in over six years, and I have never felt better.”

Conversion stories such as Howie’s abound, from cigarette-smoking singers who couldn’t make it through rehearsal (until they tried vaping) to cigarette-smoking chefs who were losing their sense of smell (until they tried vaping). It’s what gives the vaping community its missionary streak, which is helped along by the muddled, uncertain regulatory landscape.

As governments decided how to oversee e-cigs, juice and related paraphernalia, vape-related activism has taken on a decidedly right-wing flavour, especially in the United States. The North Carolina company blu eCigs spouts the slogan Take Back Your Freedom, while the conservative bomb-thrower Grover Norquist is on record saying the vaping community is “changing the country in very good ways.”

In California last month, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter protested a proposed rule against vaping on planes by ostentatiously sucking on a vape pen in the House of Representatives. (On Wednesday, he became one of the first two congressmen to endorse Donald Trump for president.)

In Toronto right now, the vape scene is feeling beleaguered and defensive in its own right. The provincial government prohibited the sale of e-cigarettes to minors at the beginning of the year and is now weighing whether to ban vaping indoors. A protest sign in Vapers on Bloor Street captures the rebellious mood: “Pay attention minister. Health before hype. Vaping isn’t smoking.”

Van Osnabrugge is sure that regulators are bound to see the light. His vaping monologue is delivered in a level, confident tone, evoking a a vacuum salesman, with a verbal momentum that pre-empts questions or interruptions.

The benefits, from easier breathing to sweeter smelling clothes, are just so obvious, he says. And it seems to have helped him kick his addiction: His preferred juices used to clock in at 18 milligrams of nicotine but now sit in the zero to three mg range.

“This will become cool – oh, for sure,” he said, between puffs on his vape pen. “You’re getting to the point where you’re seeing movie stars vaping.”

E-cigarettes containing nicotine have not been approved for sale

E-cigarettes remain stuck in a regulatory grey zone in Canada – at least for the time being.

Health Canada has not created any rules around nicotine-containing e-cigarettes and they are not approved for sale. However, the devices and nicotine cartridges are readily available in stores or online.

There are numerous unanswered questions about the safety of e-cigarettes that contain nicotine and whether they are truly effective at helping people wean themselves from cigarettes. Some critics are concerned that the growing availability of e-cigarettes means teens will use them as a gateway to smoking.

Part of the reason there’s so much confusion is that research into e-cigarettes is still in its infancy and many studies that do get published have conflicting results. For instance, a study published by California researchers last December found e-cigarettes cause significant DNA damage, which may lead to cancer. But Public Health England, a British government agency responsible for protecting public health, declared that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful than cigarettes. Meanwhile, a Cochrane review published in December, 2014, found that while e-cigarettes do seem to help smokers quit cigarettes, the evidence is from small trials and needs to be looked at in a larger context.

Despite the conflicting evidence, groups such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society are calling for regulation to protect young people from the potential dangers of e-cigarettes and monitor what flavours and ingredients are being added to the products. Groups are also calling on the federal government to invest in more research to determine what, if any, risks e-cigarettes pose.

Last year, then-health minister Rona Ambrose asked the House of Commons health committee to study the issue and the group recommended regulation as a way of keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of minors while allowing access to those who want to use the devices as a way to cut down on cigarettes.

So far, no federal action has been taken. In the meantime, some provinces and municipalities are rushing to fill the void. Nova Scotia became the first province last year to ban e-cigarettes from indoor public places and restrict minors from purchasing them. Other provinces, including British Columbia, New Brunswick and Quebec, have passed similar legislation. Ontario now bans minors from purchasing e-cigarettes, but has delayed implementation of a ban on using e-cigarettes in public places.

Carly Weeks

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Follow on Twitter: @ericandrewgee

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