(Part 2 of 3 – read part 1)
Ahead of the curves.
“Sir, you’ll need to stop smoking that here,” the airline employee spoke quietly to the man sitting across from me at the gate. He was a younger guy, sporting a full, Grizzly Adams beard, skinny jeans, and square tipped shoes that made his feet look huge. He had been boredly flicking a thumb across his iPhone screen and openly puffing away on an electronic cigarette. I had been thinking that his behavior was a little bold; the uncomfortable glances from the other travelers awaiting our California-bound flight were pretty noticeable. This was in 2011 and they may not have known what exactly he was puffing on – but it was clear that he was violating some rule of public decorum that undoubtedly existed. Hell, even I – as a person who doesn’t mind confrontation for good causes – only dared to vape in the bathroom stalls while at the airport. You have to know where and when you’ll actually make a difference by taking a stand, right?
Anyway, I anticipated a muted response from the gentleman. He looked like some tech nerd Silicon Valley executive; I’m pretty sure his jeans cost more than my luggage. He exhaled vapor and said, “Eat me. It’s not smoke and there’s no law against it.”
I share that story because I have recently discovered that the exact same vaping is my right, so screw you attitude has somehow made its way from random, contrarian individuals to what seems to be the vape “industry.” And although I obviously agree that vaping is a 95-100% less harmful alternative to cigarette smoking, I’ve been around long enough to know that you can only selfishly taunt the establishment for so long before you end up in the cross-hairs. And to be honest, I’m a little pissed off that, by now getting involved and trying to support the health and societal benefits of vaping, I am also – in effect – being associated with how the industry is perceived today. I support you in having the ability to manage your nicotine in a much less harmful manner; I do not support your tendency to be a dick.
To be clear, I have all of the respect in the world for visionaries and innovators in any industry, and those who recognized the potential of vaping technology back in 2007 (or before) are no exception. They realized that smokers hated the smell, the smoke, the ash, the health challenges, and the constant criticism from others – and that vaping was a legitimate alternative. I honestly believe that those early entrepreneurs only screwed up in one primary way – they used words that were associated with the tobacco world in their slogans, products, and businesses names. Smoke, smoking, cigarette, cigs, (even the old grand-daddy e-cigarette) cause confusion and guilt-by-association. In that way, I guess the industry framed itself from the beginning; in trying to quickly associate their product with something familiar in the consumer’s mind, they also set the foundation for the current misunderstandings and hatred.
In case you think that I am starting to sound like nothing more than a critical armchair quarterback, I will admit that no one should fault those early visionaries. Hell, if I had been starting a business to sell a completely unique new product, of course I would try to put it into some sort of context that a consumer was already familiar with. Even with the perspective of the current regulatory and PR challenges, this is a completely forgivable misstep. But it’s also the reason that we shouldn’t continue doing it. Why do I keep seeing marketing and advocacy for the vape industry still associating it with clear smoking terms?
As a quick aside, another pet-peeve I have in this situation is those self-righteous, anti-vaping warriors who sit around guzzling wine or lighting up joints, and criticizing those who are dependent on nicotine. You know who you are, you’re hypocrites, and you suck.
Back to my airport douche with the attitude – whom some of you may have actually cheered for. I can respect, and definitely understand society’s occasional need to rise up and demand that the establishment makes a change. But that only works if the change is worthwhile to humanity. If the establishment is oppressing individuals because of how they were born, people will stand up with you. If the establishment is oppressing individuals because they look a certain way, people will stand up with you. If the establishment is suppressing or maligning a new discovery that will improve the health and quality of life for millions of family, friends, and neighbors, society will go out and shut down freeways with you.
But to boldly demand your right to vape at the gate while waiting for a plane? Society will tell you to shut the hell up.
So lets take a brief look at the score. You’ve got a technology that initially appealed to cigarette smokers who were tired of the health risks and social stigma associated with tobacco. You’ve got some early users who quit smoking and realized they could sell the devices to others like themselves. Online and brick-and-mortar stores started appearing; either catering to those specifically looking for electronic cigarettes because they already knew about them, or educating cigarette smokers about this much safer alternative. Either way, it was about providing health and/or social benefits to the community. Cool, I can get behind that. In fact, I did.
I started sharing my vaping experiences with every cigarette smoker who I happened to be near; you can always tell them by the yellow finger-tips, raspy voices, and constant look of guilt while in public. I gave away many of my own devices (if I really liked you), or I told you where to get your own. I was not an entrepreneur and I had no financial interest in people vaping; I suppose I became somewhat of an accidental activist. And in the meantime, I just continued on with my life; kids, job, car payment, vaping – same as many of you, I imagine.
Then I had the experiences that I explained in my previous post and realized that – seemingly out of nowhere – the entire world was against vaping. What the hell? A society that made motorcycle riders wear helmets, gave clean needles to heroin addicts, and showed second-graders how to properly put condoms on – all in an attempt to reduce the risks associated with known human behaviors – was now aligned against a technology that could positively improve community health to a degree never before even imagined.
T*ts McGee for the defense.
My own first step in a personal quest to bring reason to the establishment was to attend a city council meeting. I had read that the council was going to discuss the defining of electronic cigarettes as tobacco products. Changing the definitions of words to push any agenda was far too close to George Orwell’s 1984 for my comfort. That, and I vaped and knew that the next steps would inevitably be over-regulation and taxation. As I sat in the parking lot of the council chambers, vaping and finishing my coffee, a noticed a number of BMW, Lexus, and other higher end cars pulling into the lot. Young men in shiny suits, slicked back hair, and emitting monstrous clouds of vapor stepped out; accompanied by girls with too much make-up, and too little clothing.
I glanced at the council agenda, hoping that there was something else on there that would have brought out these ghosts from my senior prom. Alas, no. They were clearly there for the same reason I was. Then I discovered that the anti-vaping crowd – who had apparently arrived much earlier because they had taken all of the seats directly in front of the council, probably so their handmade signs would be more consistently visible – were just the opposite; not nearly enough make-up, and far too many clothes.
One after the other, members of the public got up to address the council. First, crazy cat lady #1 said she was a life-long activist for the American Something Association and urged the city in the strongest possible terms to ban vaping and smoking outright. Next up, one of the Miami Vice kids. He spoke passionately of his right to vape wherever and whenever he wanted, because there is no smoke, no second-hand smoke, and that vaping was awesome. (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)
When crazy cat lady #2 got up to speak, she had a visual presentation to accompany her three minute monologue. “Here we have photos of a vapor shop selling to clearly underage children, and the next slide is that same shop’s social media post calling out kids at a local school to get their vaporizer supplies at a discount.” And it went on and on. At the end of her 240 long seconds, I was as low in my seat as possible. The meeting hadn’t even been about vaping and children; it was now. Crazy cat lady #3 (who seemed to know several of the council members on a first-name basis) then passed around blown-up printouts from social media outlets showing women in lingerie (at most) holding vaping devices between their breasts, some with liquid bottles lined up on their asses. “This is what vaporizing is about,” she said. “How can anyone say this is about health?”
The clerk then called on one of the Lost Girls, who carefully navigated her spiked Lady Gaga-esque heels down the stairs to the podium, breasts bouncing and barely contained by the fabric of her dress. She kept flipping her hair and loudly chewing gum as she read (rapidly and with no apparent punctuation) from a report on the lack of particulates in exhaled vapor. She was followed by a guy who provided sales statistics indicating that the majority of vaping liquids he sold contained either 3 milligrams of nicotine, or none at all. He concluded that they were not, therefore, tobacco products. Sales stats? You mean, these were the local vape shop owners? Are you kidding me?
Ultimately, the council ended up decimating the reputation of vaping in their city – which the local papers gleefully reported. Vaping was to be considered tobacco, and was to be restricted everywhere that cigarettes were. I knew one thing right away; if I was going to continue trying in my own little way to urge reason in this debate, I would need to really look at what the industry had developed into while I was happily vaping away and living my life. Otherwise, I could potentially get blindsided again, right?
Have you ever seen that 1979 movie where George C. Scott plays a conservative Midwesterner who had to navigate California’s underground porn industry in search of his runaway teen daughter? That was me looking into the vape industry with an outsider’s perspective. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but as an adult professional who had been vaping solely for harm reduction purposes, investigating the image, advertising, and culture that was the most visible component of the vaping world – I was highly disappointed.
Save for some exceptions (and it’s quickly obvious who they are), it looks like the industry is dominated by snickering twelve year-old boys, dangerously narcissistic girls, and opportunistic carnival barkers. And people wonder why the general public and the lawmakers show no respect. They’re trapped between douchebags in the airport, sponsored vape athletes (vapeletes?) who think blowing rings is a marketable skill, and liquid manufacturers who apparently believe that stuffing a 30ml bottle into a girl’s butt crack will convince you that ‘vaping is for you.’ Gosh, why aren’t the forty million mature, hard-working, cigarette-smoking Americans jumping onto that circus train? And do you actually expect career politicians and health agency directors to put their reputations on the line to support a vape jellyfish? (Now, if one of you figures out how to blow a vape poodle, or a vape Notre Dame Cathedral, then we might have something.)
For those who don’t have the time (or the interest) in looking into the industry’s current image, here is my five point summary; developed after many months of reviewing daily social media, vape magazines, vape conventions, and vape shops:
- Look at my (or my girlfriend’s, or a model I wish was my girlfriend’s) breasts, butt, lingerie, or lips while vaping demurely.
- Look at the bottle of liquid and unique device in my hand as I drive (or walk, or ride a bike, or play Xbox, or stand menacingly on a railroad trestle, or…).
- Look at this coil of wires that I made. Now look at it when it’s hot. Now look at it when it cools and turns colors.
- Look at me inhaling a bunch of vapor and blowing a monstrous cloud; I may even measure it, or do it simultaneously with someone else to see whose is bigger. I can also blow vape rings, big and little. And I’m on a competitive vaping team where we do all of these things against other teams to win free stuff.
- Look at the liquid that I manufacture in my garage and market specifically to get the attention of Intellectual Property attorneys, so they can sue me and take my parents’ house.
Look, I know I’m being harsh; I get that you are just having fun. But I suspect that vaping may just be a fad for the majority of younger folks who are currently doing it; it’s just the Furby, Tickle Me Elmo, or MySpace of the moment. If you don’t vape to avoid cigarettes, or if you have 150+ watt devices stuffed into each front pocket, or you get together with friends in a garage (or parent-funded vape shop) to chase clouds, then you will eventually lose interest. And if you are allowed to continue defining the vape industry, then we (as a society) are going to lose millions of opportunities to actually help people who struggle with cigarette smoking.
Tobacco harm reduction is not a game, and turning this technology – this potential lifeline for people and their families – into a freak show, significantly weakens the chances of it being accepted by the general public and the health community.
Taking back the industry.
I’m sorry, but we need to take it back. And I challenge the legitimate business owners, investors, harm-reduction supporters, manufacturers, marketers, and former smokers whose lives have been improved through vaping (a.k.a. paying customers) to take the lead. Vapor companies, you should read a book on strategy for Pete’s sake, and stop focusing on the current fringe to make quick cash. Instead, look to that future mass market – those millions of adult smokers who just want to stop smelling like burnt leaves, getting winded walking to the car, and drowning in their own obliterated lungs. That’s where the future of vaping is. From a business perspective, you are stepping over dollars to pick up pennies, and from a humanity perspective, you are allowing human beings to die, out of your own ignorance. In that respect, many of you may be no better than Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and Public Health agencies. Ask yourself, how would your stores, products, marketing, and advocacy look different if you were actually focused on saving the lives of cigarette smokers?
Additionally, every day that you continue neglecting to professionally present vaping as a way to improve the quality of life and health for adults dependent on combustible cigarettes, you are adding months or years of work to the CASAAs, SFATAs, AVAs, Greg Conleys, Cynthia Cabreras, and Clive Bates’ of the world – who try to unwind stupid regulations, clarify misunderstandings, educate the general public, and oppose that small army of crazy cat ladies, who are always more than happy to show up and highlight the stupid crap done by those who have hijacked vaping. And at what cost? Smokers who may have tried vaping today if it had been presented positively, will continue to light cigarettes and shake their heads at this ridiculous fad.
I guarantee that those who stand to gain the most from the failure of the vape industry definitely have a strategy. And they know that their corporate survival is at stake in this war for cigarette smokers, gum chewers, and patch wearers. You have a significantly more compelling mission on your side, one that can motivate the general public to change the establishment; you can win this. But not if you continue to let teenagers, cloud chasers, ass models, kitchen-sink liquid mixers, and 200 watt device manufacturers speak for your industry.
And definitely not if you continue to let your opponents frame the debate.