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Flavours, cool tricks, & even earning money: Vaping isn’t just about quitting tobacco

Indians are increasingly taking to vaping and studies are yet to conclusively tell us if it is indeed a healthier alternative to smoking.

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Watermelon, grape mint, lemon burst, ice rabbit, and American tobacco — these aren’t flavours from a pack of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, but of those popular among Indians who vape.

What is a vape, you ask? Only the latest fad among both smokers and non-smokers, and teens and middle-aged folks, and just about everyone else.

For the uninitiated, vaping is the act of inhaling/exhaling vapour. A vape is the hand-held device that one uses for vaping, and is often sported by people trying to quit smoking. It’s only slightly different from an e-cigarette since it may or may not contain nicotine. But, colloquially, the two terms are interchangeably used.

So why is vaping becoming such a fad?

Blame it on the many flavours one can try, and the supposedly healthier aspect of it given its very low nicotine content. Vape store owners say most customers begin vaping as an alternative to smoking.

Annie Gupta, a 28-year-old teacher trainer, is one such customer. She loved the idea of flavoured nicotine — her favourites are liquid hazelnut cream and cookie & cream.

Jenita Shrestha, who manages VapeWalli Shop in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash, said, “Most of our customers are smokers who want to quit smoking. We ask them their smoking history and then recommend the kind of vape that will suit them the best. We even suggest nicotine-free vapes to customers who want to vape just for the fun of it. We have vapes with nicotine concentration varying from 0.6 mg to 0 mg.”

According to her, vape sales have increased by 20% from last year.

An earlier report by ThePrint shows that the import of e-cigarettes has increased by 100% over the last two years. In 2017-18, as many as 19,585 units were imported as compared to 9,761 units in 2016-17.

Choose your flavour

From fruit flavours to food flavours, vapes appeal to a wide palate. Some brands specialise in specific kinds of flavours. For example, Nestijuice is known for its fruity and tangy flavours while Naked, an American brand, is best known for its American tobacco flavour.

In India, brands like Smok, Vaporreso, E-lite, Canvatech, Lost Vape, Homeboy and Joytech are common. The Indian Tobacco Company introduced its own vaping device called Eon in August 2018. But new kids on the scene have taken to JUUL.

“There has been an increased awareness about vaping ever since JUUL started selling products in the country. JUUL entered the Indian market a year back and more people are vaping now,” said Sagar Kumar, manager at the two-year-old The Dampf Company vape store.

With a market valuation of $15 billion in 2018, JUUL, the American vape manufacturer, is reportedly exploring new markets to expand in.

Also read: Sitting is not the new smoking

Vape acrobatics

A quick internet search of vaping throws up images of people blowing out thick smoke through their nostrils or blowing smoke rings from their mouth.

A deeper search shows that the smoke rings get complicated — some can blow out a neat ring in a ring; at one point, the smoke changes colours; the craftier fill up soap bubbles… you can go down that rabbit hole yourself, but you get the picture.

YouTube and Instagram are full of videos of such vaping ‘experts’, or vape tricksters, which clearly shows the allure is in the messaging — vaping is cool, and it’s not even a cigarette.

Vape tricksters are typically young teens savvy with social media, and are influential in building the market. In fact, tricksters get paid by vape brands for a mention or brand placement in their videos. However, this market has only just opened up in the US and Europe, and is yet to pick up in India.

“Vape tricksters outside India can do very complicated tricks with smoke. We are yet to see this in the Indian vapers community,” said Arbaz Shaikh, a 22-year-old engineering student who started Indian Vape Garage in Pune.

Shaikh says some of the best vape tricksters around the world are part of group called ‘VGOD’.

Dash Drips, a 17-year-old vape ‘influencer’ who has more than 7,000 followers, told VICE in an interview that local vape brands give him discounts for promoting their products.

Some vape enthusiasts also create their own flavoured liquids.

Kylee Brehm, a vaper popular on YouTube, promotes brands and offers tutorials to her viewers.

How to vape

A vape pen runs on a coil — called an atomiser — which has cotton around it to soak up the flavoured liquid. When heated, this liquid turns into an aerosol and can be inhaled and smoked from a mouth piece. The coil is powered by a battery, and needs to be changed from time to time along with the cotton.

In its designs, JUUL has done away with the need to replace the atomiser and the liquid. Instead, it produces refill bottles called JUUL pods that have to be inserted into the vape.
The liquid flavour is made of vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol. The American food and pharmaceutical industry has approved the use of propylene glycol, but the effects of the synthetic liquid on health is still being studied.

Cost of a habit

If smoking is an expensive habit, vaping is a luxurious one.

Devices begin from Rs 2,000, and a refill ranges between Rs 700-1,500. If you’re into brands, a JUUL starter kit can cost about Rs 5,000.

Contrast this with cigarettes, which cost Rs 300 for a pack of 20.

Shaikh says people looking to quit are willing to pay the price. “We have a customer base of 10,000 people and most of them have quit smoking and taken to vaping. I even have customers who are above the age of 60 who now prefer vaping.”

In some extreme cases, vaping has been the go-to for parents trying to wean their kids of cigarettes.

Nikhil, the owner of the Indian Vape Shop in Delhi, said, “We always ask for an identity card before selling a vape to anyone. But I once had a parent bring their minor (child) to my shop. Their son had started smoking cigarettes and when they heard about e-cigarettes as cessation tools, they immediately bought their son one from my shop.”

Also read: More Indians are being diagnosed with lung cancer, and it’s not because they’re smoking

A new epidemic?

With more teens taking to the fad, the American Food and Drug Association called it “an epidemic of vaping”.

Doubts have also been raised about its health benefits.

A Johns Hopkins report says that although vapes do not have 7,000 chemicals like cigarettes do, they are not entirely safe. A smoker is still exposed to chemicals which are new and potentially dangerous. The report mentions that smokers who try to switch to vaping, end up doing both — smoking cigarettes and vapes.

A report by the Centre of Living states that the liquids used in vapes cause damage to three types of cells in the body — the human pulmonary fibroblasts, human embryonic stem cells and the neural stem cells. E-cigarettes have also been found to cause damage to DNA.

Dr. Sean Nordt of University of Southern California said that as little an intake as 5 ml of such syntheic liquids, essentially a sip, can kill a child within 20 minutes of consumption.

However, since the product is new — the first e-cigarette was made in 2003 — no study can conclusively draw up the long term effects or certify vaping as a safe alternative to smoking.

Dr Darshan Bhansali, an oncosurgeon at Ahmedabad’s CIMS Cancer Centre, said, “Devices with high nicotine content can cause cardiac arrest, seizures and convulsions. Although the levels of nitrosamines in e-cigarettes is low, nitrosamines are the leading cause of stomach cancer among smokers, and users need to be cautious.”

Substitution is not the best way to quit, instead behavioral therapy is a better option, he added.

The Indian government has issued an advisory on the “emerging risk” of vaping, and has tagged nicotine as a “tumour promoter”.

Following the advisory, the Hindustan Times reported on 28 August last year that Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Puducherry issued a ban on e-cigarettes.

However, this doesn’t seem to have stopped sales.

Shaikh, who is a member of Association of Vapers India and is a pronent of vaping over smoking, says there isn’t a ban in Maharahstra

“I have all the required documentation and licenses, and nobody wants to give me (in) writing that the sale of vapes is banned. It is definitely not banned in Maharashtra,” he said.

And just like that, regulations seem to go up in a poof of colourful, flavoured smoke.

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