18 April 2023
By Imogen West-Knights, The Guardian
Scientists don’t know yet whether vapes are harmful. So why is the UK government handing them out?
I am vaping right now. It’s a watermelon one, which I bought from Sainsbury’s rather than from the vape shop that, unfortunately, is the nearest shop of any kind to where I live. The ones I normally buy are Triple Mango. “Oh, is one mango not enough?” people reliably joke when I tell them what flavour it is. No amount of mango could apparently be enough. If they brought out Quadruple Mango I’d be there banging my debit card on the counter. Earlier this week, the man who runs the vape shop took me through the new flavours he’d just got in, like I am a connoisseur of fine whisky. I’m not that. I am a silly little girl who likes her dummy.
I have had my brain well and truly fried over the past nine months or so by vapes. Not the old-style vapes: unflavoured, nerdy-looking objects that were for a long time the preserve of morose ex-smokers. The dumb fruity ones you’ve seen everywhere, littering the pavements, clutched in the mitts of pub-goers and people waiting for the bus, called things like Blappleberry Blast or Dr Maniac’s Pinacoloco.
Recently I caught myself thinking, as I was walking to the bathroom for a shower, that I should take my vape with me. That it is absurd that you can’t vape on the tube. That it’s not worth examining that something I like about vapes is that they reduce your appetite. That vaping first thing in the morning, before you have even got out of bed, is a normal way to conduct oneself. It was an addiction that came out of nowhere. I don’t even remember having a vape for the first time: I feel like I just woke up one morning with one sitting on my chest like a foul but undeniably delicious demon.
Until recently I liked to kid myself that at least vaping, unlike smoking, wasn’t damaging my health. Whenever someone would say something alarming like “popcorn lung” – a scarring of the lungs associated with the chemical diacetyl – in relation to vapes, my eyes would glass over and I would retreat to a quiet corner of my mind. Not information I was interested in, thank you. It’s fine, I’m sure, I told myself. The consensus, apparently, is that science simply doesn’t know yet whether vaping might be bad for you. It’s too new.
I decided to quit vaping in February, mostly for financial reasons. It was part of a two-pronged attack on my nicotine dependency. First, I would quit smoking – because I also smoked, having followed the time-honoured transition from smoker to vaper to someone who both smokes and vapes – which I did in January. Then I would give myself another few weeks of the vapes, before switching to nicotine-free ones (the vape version of buying fat-free yoghurt if you hate yourself enough to believe it hits anything like real yoghurt does), and then finally: freedom. I bought a fidget spinner and fussy kinds of tea to give myself other things to do with my mouth and fingers. It worked.
But then something stressful happened. And I thought, what harm would a little vape do? Just to take the edge off? And so here I am again, suckling on the (unrecyclable, single-use) plastic teat. All the easier to slip back into because it is – I tell myself firmly – not even definitely harmful.
Vapes might be better for you than smoking but this isn’t a great starting point. Anything that is addictive enough to have you shelling out hundreds of pounds a month against your better judgment can’t be good for society. It’s probably not a good sign either that several times I have thought: “I’d be less inclined to vape if I just took up smoking up again.” Despite this, the government announced plans this week to offer e-cigarette starter kits for free to people trying to quit smoking. I get it. Quitting smoking sucks.
But in my experience quitting vaping is just as difficult, if not more so. It’s not just the physical dependence on nicotine: unlike cigarettes, you can do it inside your house, all day long, without really thinking about it. (A new study suggests that even some nicotine-free vapes actually contain the same level of addictive substances as full-strength e-cigarettes.) I will have to quit again. Apart from anything else, it’s expensive and I could be spending that money on various other little treats that don’t make me look like an idiot. And that have been, say, proven not to cause you some sort of recherché form of lung disease.
Making these things pricier, or more difficult to get hold of, would make it easier. Or maybe uglier, like cigarette packets are now, and not presented at eye-level in all their rainbow appeal in every corner shop and at every supermarket checkout. “They have to stop selling them, because we can’t be expected to stop buying them,” my friend Cate messaged me recently when she was trying to wean herself off vapes. I appreciate how ridiculous this sounds. Just exercise a little self-control and stop purchasing vapes, you’re thinking.
Evidently I can’t. And I’m not alone. It’s estimated that up to 15% of all 11- to 15-year-olds in the UK are now vaping. Please, someone, think of the children. And the adult babies like me.
Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist based in London