Not Really for the Quitting: The Darker Side of Vaping


Henry Gee (he/him) reflects on the present vaping market and its targeting of younger audiences

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Image by Rafael Barros

By Henry Gee

I used to be a smoker. Not a heavy smoker, only a couple a day, but enough to where I’d be planning out my time so as to fit roughly around when I knew it was likely that I would need another cigarette. “It gets me outside” I’d say whenever a friend gave me a questioning look as they saw me standing by the backdoor shivering in the winter sun. “It helps regulate my breathing” I say turning away to cough up phlegm from deep within my lungs. “It’s a night out, everyone smokes on a night out” said to strangers, not smoking, in the queue for Flares.

When I was quitting, I decided to forgo any form of nicotine altogether. No vape, no patches, no gum, absolutely nothing. I assumed it would be quicker; flush the nicotine out of my body and be done with the whole thing. It was the summer, so I thought the warmer weather would help with the shakes, and the sunlight would boost my serotonin levels making me less angry and irritable.

That wasn’t quite what ended up happening. I was a right arsehole that entire summer, a proper sourpuss. It didn’t help that Boris Johnson was in the final stages of imploding as PM, but it at least gave me something to think about other than the thing I was trying hard to not think about.

Coming back to university, I had assumed the day-to-day would be the hardest. Outside of the chemical dependence on nicotine, the hardest thing to overcome about addiction is the routine. The tactile feeling of the cigarette between your fingers; the motion of bringing it to your lips; the lighter that won’t light because of a worn-out spark wheel; breathing in the smoke, holding, and exhaling.

These are the things that a patch or gum simply cannot replicate. Trying to re-form a routine that didn’t revolve around these rituals and smoke breaks seemed incredibly daunting. (I hasten to add that while that above description of the routine may have sounded strangely romantic, the reality is that smoking, and addiction are very boring. It only seems enticing and romantic because as soon as it’s over you’re already looking forward to the next and looking back nostalgically at the one you just finished).

As it turned out, for me, forming new habits wasn’t too bad. As long as I reminded myself to go outside every so often for a break or a walk, I was okay. Addictions, however mild, are all consuming, and it’s easy to forget that there was a time before you started smoking. Forming new routines was easy because, obviously, I’d been not smoking for more of my life than I had! It took quitting to see just how much effort it took, both physically and mentally, to keep up the addiction. Realising the amount of free time and free mental space I now had because I wasn’t having to constantly think about smoking made life a lot easier.

The problems arose when it came to nights out; I had been smoking for as long as I’d been going out-out. Going outside for some fresh air and not smoking just felt wrong. Despite the fact that most people who step outside for respite from the sweating, writhing hoards are non-smokers, (who get, rightly, very annoyed when you interrupt their scheduled cool down by blowing cancer fog into their faces), it always felt like something was missing. The routine; the nostalgic, neurotic routine was missing.

So instead of buying a pack of cigarettes ‘only for nights out’, because that is totally what I would use it for, I bought a disposable vape for a fiver and at the end of the night threw it away. It seemed to work. Then I realised how stupid I looked. Then how sickening I smelt whilst looking stupid. Then I stopped all together.

What’s the point of all that, I hear you cry, other than to fill up the required word count, you lazy hack! Frankly, bit rude, tone it down. It was something I needed to get off my chest. To admit to myself how awful my former habit was, and remind myself that I’ve made the right decision. Big Tobacco doesn’t need any more of my money, nor do they deserve it. It’s also where vapes come in.

Although I mostly quit without the use of a vape, when I needed one to replicate that routine of smoking without nearly as much of the risk, I was glad that there was a product that could accommodate these needs. In a recent vaping evidence review conducted by Public Health England (PHE), they found that all evidence suggested that vaping posed “a small fraction of the risks of smoking” (in the short and medium term), thus lowering the risks of high blood pressure, cardiac arrest, and cancer. That same review also points out that smokers who used vapes as a quitting-aid had a higher chance of success and were less likely to relapse.

I think this is where vapes are most useful: a quitting-aid that replicates the rituals of smoking, with far less of the harmful side-effects. And if that was all vaping was, then I wouldn’t have any problem with it. The fact that vapes aren’t currently available through the NHS doesn’t at all undermine their role as merely quitting aids. So, in a surprise twist that is a surprise to literally no one, the tobacco companies that profit off of people continuing to use their tobacco products, don’t actually want people to stop using tobacco products. I’ll come back to this.

Looking to the PHE review, whilst vaping use among adults has remained steady over recent years, the number of young people vaping has doubled in the past year alone and is expected to rise further in the future. (On a side note, despite the report calling them young people, given the age range they’re talking about, 11-18, I’m going to call them what they are – children). Some chalk this up to a broader cultural migration in the West towards vaping, and children who would normally take up smoking are instead taking up vaping. To be honest, I simply don’t buy it. These kinds of explanations make assumptions that, according to the data, simply aren’t true; and they can’t account for the recent increase.

To me - it’s simple. Well, kind of. Smoking is an expensive habit because of taxation. Vaping is an expensive habit because of do-hickiys. The tank costs money, the battery costs money, the refills cost money, and if it breaks, you have to buy all of these again. Enter disposable vapes, to a collective boo and hiss from the audience. Of all children vaping, over 50 percent now use disposable vapes, up from only five percent two years ago. They are cheap, often less than a fiver, and far easier to come by. They aren’t subject to the same plain packaging laws as cigarettes, don’t have to be hidden from sight in retailers, and as a friend recently pointed out to me; are often sold directly next to sweets – possibly in an attempt to target a similar demographic.

Now, I am not saying that these tobacco companies are deliberately advertising their cheap, colourful, sweet, flavoured disposable vapes to children. That is still against the law. In the UK, vaping products still come under the same restrictions regarding advertising in traditional media and in public as cigarettes. But children tend not to consume traditional forms of media, instead getting their in-formation and entertainment from the inter-net. The regulation of social media posts is far murkier, and tobacco companies have taken full advantage of this loophole.

The law states that "direct person-to-person communications” are exempt from regulation. This includes posts on social media. By sponsoring influencers on various platforms, tobacco companies can effectively advertise their products to anyone, anywhere, with no restrictions.

According to a report in The Guardian, a lot of these posts are directed towards children. Overwhelmingly, the audiences of influencers who post this sponsored content skew younger. Posts tend to emphasise the vape's playful, colourful, youthful aesthetics, and repeatedly emphasise how cheap and readily available they are.

Despite being less likely to lead to the same terrible side-effects as smoking, vaping is not without its risks. The PHE report is careful to emphasise this. There are currently no studies into the long-term effects of vaping, and as stated above, we only know that they cause less of the side-effects associated with smoking. We don’t know what side effects they cause on their own because this is not the research that is being done. If vapes continue to be seen solely as a quitting-aid (and not as something separate), we will never know the effects they may have until it’s too late. The tobacco companies knew smoking caused cancer back in the fifties and did nothing for fear of losing profits. Just saying. History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Last year, the six biggest tobacco companies were collectively valued at over 360 billion US dollars (, and made over $50 billion in profit during 2018, the last year when figures were released. This number is only expected to have increased since this point.

Big Tobacco, under the guise of helping smokers quit, is flooding the market with cheap vapes advertised to children. This increases their profit margins, keeps their investors happy, and gives board members huge bonuses. No one wants or expects to seen young people put at such risk. Frankly, it’s disgusting and shameful how we’ve all been deceived. Then again, why we ever thought that large corporations would invest in a product that would actively encourage people to stop using their products was perhaps a little short sighted.