10 January 2023
By Alyx Gorman, The Guardian
Three years in, the long-term consequences of my habit started to show. But my health wasn’t the main reason for stopping
n the back of a rideshare, my fingers curled around a smooth cylinder that must have been left by a previous customer. Glancing sideways to make sure my husband wasn’t looking, I palmed the mascara-sized tube into my handbag. It was the height of summer, and the height of Australia’s Omicron wave, but I pushed health and hygiene from my mind. In the bathroom back home, door locked, I barely bothered to wipe the vape off before I put it to my lips. Inhaling a cloud of treacle flavoured nicotine, my whole body shimmered from the pleasure.
This was my first vaping relapse, but it wouldn’t be my last.
I’m a member of that statistically significant cohort of vapers, most of them much younger than me, who never habitually smoked cigarettes. Recent data from Victoria health shows that vaping levels doubled between 2018-19 and 2022, and a quarter of people vaping have never smoked.
Todd Harper, the chief executive of the Cancer Council Victoria, says that there’s been a marked increase in vapers calling Quitline, especially in the last two years. Though Quitline’s vaping clients range in age from 12 to 79, the majority of people who vape are under 30.
“We have schoolchildren who ring our Quitline explaining the signs of addiction that they’re experiencing,” Harper says.
I’ve never thought of myself as having a particularly addictive personality, so the realisation that I was helplessly, catastrophically hooked on nicotine surprised me. Everyone around me had already noticed.
For me, vaping was just too easy, too accessible, too cheap. It felt too good, and not bad enough – at least short term. But just because the delivery mechanism is novel, it doesn’t mean the substance is.
“Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs that we know of,” Harper says. “In some ways the experiences are the same, because you’re trying to quit nicotine,” and that’s an experience “people are finding very difficult”.
When I see my friends vaping at parties now, I suppress the urge to bum a puff by telling them my cautionary tale, the same one I’m about to tell you. Sometimes, I still bum a puff.
Thanks to asthma and a generally weak constitution, smoking has always made me feel very ill, very fast. But I still did it socially in the most literal sense of the word: to meet people. When I moved to New York at the beginning of 2018, I bought a pack of American Spirits and didn’t buy a lighter. Hello, new friends.
But by spring of that year, nobody had a lighter – everyone had started vaping instead. So I followed my friends and jumped off the cliff: I bought a Juul.
Unlike cigarettes, vaping never made me feel sick or wheezy. With no instant body cues to moderate my usage, I went from vaping socially to habitually in a matter of weeks. As for the long-term consequences? Back then, the jury was still out.
I vaped my way through the Fourth of July, fall foliage season, and (with a blanket over my head, feigning sleep) a flight relocating me from New York to London.
The thing that makes vaping, and at that time especially Juuling, so appealing is the way it “hits”. A sudden rush of nicotine floods into your lungs, your bloodstream – you feel it.
But British vapes just didn’t hit. The strongest Juul pods sold in the UK at the time were just 1% – a big step down from what I’d been using. Another difference: you bought them from pharmacies as a smoking cessation aid, not seedy bodegas for kicks and giggles.
Gripped by withdrawals, I finally noticed my habit. And kept right on doing it. I stocked up on the good stuff whenever I was stateside, my suitcase lined with packs of Juul.
These days, Juuls have fallen out of favour. In Australia children are using disposable vapes, bought under the counter at convenience stores. Harper says we have no idea how much nicotine is in them. The market is an unregulated “wild west” he says. “[Vapes in Australia] don’t carry reliable information, and sometimes it’s been found that the information is inaccurate, and the only way to verify it is to undertake chemical analysis.”
There is one way to get a glimpse of how strong Australian vapes are, which is to suck them and see. I have. Unfortunately, they hit like prizefighters.
When I quit my job and moved home to Australia, my habit came with me. When Australia’s regulations changed, allowing import only with a prescription, I had my annual script from a dodgy internet doctor in a matter of hours. Not that I needed one. A disposable vape was already just a convenience store away.
Because the information on Australian vapes is either nonexistent or untrustworthy, most vapers can’t even guess at their daily nicotine intake. Because Juul pods came with a nicotine percentage, I estimate that at the peak of my vaping I was inhaling roughly the equivalent of a pack and a half of cigarettes a day.
“That is a high level of smoking,” Harper says. For most people trying to quit cigarettes these days, “it’s certainly much less than a pack a day”.
Yet it cost me surprisingly little: I was paying about $70 a week to vape so much. If I’d been punching real durries, it would have been $70 a day.
Three years into vaping, the long-term consequences of all my nicotine use finally started to show. One was highly visible: my body melted. I’ve always been a fainter – I told you I have a weak constitution – but it started happening more frequently. I was perpetually freezing. Friends started having quiet, concerned words with my husband about my dwindling frame.
I rarely see shocking teen vaping figures mentioned in the same breath as diet culture, but they should be. Look at the well-established links between smoking and thinness and the opaque allure of vaping for teenage girls becomes immediately transparent.
But it wasn’t my increasing resemblance to a Schiele sketch that made me realise I had to quit, or my very Victorian dizzy spells. It wasn’t about money, or the growing body of evidence on what the habit was likely doing to my health. And while the prospect of other, as yet unknown health risks – the ones that start with “c” – weren’t appealing, they weren’t the deciding factor.
I wanted to quit because I was ashamed of being an addict. Last November, the Sydney psychotherapist Eugenie Pepper described teen vapers as being “like little babies with a dummy, unable to function without their vape in hand”.
One year earlier, that was me. Nicotine trimmed my once long fuse to a nub. An hour without it, and I started feeling tetchy. By hour three, the agony felt physical, a demon’s dark talons rending my insides. By hour five, I’d be in a state of full dysphoria, the world around me washed into hopeless greyscale.
I was so totally in the substance’s thrall that the prospect of putting my Juul down started to feel like an important deciding factor in whether or not to have children. Nicotine had taken over my life.
When I tried to quit, all the nicotine cessation programs available were aimed at smokers, not vapers. “How can I track my reduction if I can barely track my consumption?” I wondered. I went to my GP for help. He vaped too.
“We’re at an early stage with vaping, so we don’t yet have the broad level of understanding of how to support someone going through withdrawal,” Harper says.
There are some other important differences between smoking and vaping. You can vape in your house without stinking it up; you can vape in your bed without starting a fire; you can vape all you like for not that much money; you can stuff a vape down your sleeve and chuff it at the back of a classroom. That means you’re probably going to vape more than you ever smoked.
Now Quitline does have specific resources available for vapers and health professionals, Harper says, with more to come this year. “There’s been quite a lot of work to develop [cessation] programs for people that are vaping, and that’s become a really important focus.”
But with no programs tailored to my needs back then, I tried everything anyway: apps, varenicline, diazepam, even a puppy.
The apps were useless; the varenicline was worse. The dog and the diazepam eventually got me over the first bout of withdrawals.
Then my undoing was less about the physical withdrawal, and more the psychological uncoupling that follows. I’d replaced every healthy habit I’d learned for managing stress, or sadness, with vaping. I vaped when I was happy too, a hedonistic pleasure to layer on top of other pleasures.
So, whenever I felt sad, or stressed, or particularly carefree (like that night in the back of the rideshare), the emotional pangs returned, and I often relapsed.
My diazepam sleeve exhausted, those relapses meant white knuckling my way through the physical withdrawals all over again. The puppy still helped.
What actually stopped me vaping was nicotine replacement therapy. I use patches and an oral spray that cost me more than vaping ever did. I have far exceeded the 12-week recommendation for tapering off these products. I am still every bit the addict. Only now, I get no pleasure from it, only reprieve from pain.
I know, at some point soon, I’ll have to quit the NRT too. It will be a tedious, uncomfortable project. I will have to learn to cope with my life by actually learning to cope with my life.
I did not know what it meant to hate loving something until I decided to stop vaping. Now I just wish I’d never fallen for it in the first place.
This piece was amended on 12 January 2023 to replace the brand names of pharmaceuticals mentioned with the generic names.