Michael Scott takes a drag off his vape, and it crackles as the coil heats the liquid inside. After a couple of seconds, he cocks his head to the side and exhales. Pressing his mouth into an oval, he forms a vapor ring before raising his left hand and pushing it from behind. The ring floats up into the air until it dissipates.
“I can do a jellyfish as well,” he says. “You blow an ‘O’ and keep a bit of vape in your mouth, and then blow that out into a little cloud, which looks like a ghost. Then it goes into the ‘O’ and wraps around it to look like a jellyfish. People can do really cool stuff.”
Between vapor tricks, an array of candy-like flavors and a surge in social media popularity, vaping grows more and more ubiquitous among teens and young adults, far exceeding its original intention as a cigarette cessation tool.
That concerns health professionals — and even some vape shop owners.
E-cigarettes catch on
“I can remember 10 years ago, talking with my brother about some sort of ‘future cigarette,’” says Jeremy Ridgeway.
A smoker for more than 15 years, Ridgeway switched to vapor products in 2012 after repeatedly trying to quit. “My father passed away from a smoking-related disease, so it was a big deal for me.”
Ridgeway and business partner Michael Cotellese opened the first of five Asheville Vapor locations in 2013.
“I didn’t get into this business to get more people addicted to nicotine; I got into the business to provide people with a nicotine addiction with a safer alternative to cigarettes,” Ridgeway says. “If a young person comes into my store that has never smoked before but is looking to get into vaping, I will turn them away. That’s not why we are here.
“Let me be totally clear — vaping is not safe. You are still inhaling a foreign substance into your lungs,” he says. “The best thing for smokers and non-smokers alike would be to just avoid it altogether. However, I know for some people, especially people who have been smoking cigarettes their whole lives, that transition can be difficult, and vaping can at least help to reduce the damage and risks associated with smoking.”
A pressing concern is the alarming rise of vape use among adolescents. According to the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey, over 2.5 million U.S. middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2022. From 2017-19, e-cigarette use among high school students more than doubled to 27.5%, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to label it an “epidemic.”
Many critics attribute the popularity of vaping among adolescents to predatory marketing tactics aimed at children. A study by Truth Initiative, a national anti-smoking advocacy group, found that 31% of children ages 13-18 who vape reported that brightly colored packaging and the availability of flavors such as candy, fruit or chocolate contributed to them trying e-cigarettes. In early 2020, the FDA restricted flavors in cartridge-based reusable e-cigarettes like Juul to just menthol and tobacco, which are more popular with adults. But the flavor restriction didn’t apply to disposable e-cigarettes. While cartridge vapes are still the predominant form of e-cigarette, Ridgeway says that some smaller vape companies began to shift their focus to disposables in an effort to maintain their appeal with the younger audience.
In North Carolina, one must be 21 to buy any tobacco or vapor products, including e-liquids and vaporizers.
“When you tell a teenager that they can’t have something, they are going to try everything they can to get a hold of it. It was cigarettes, now it’s vapes,” Ridgeway says. “It is up to shop owners like myself to be extremely cautious when it comes to what we sell and who we sell it to. In our stores, we don’t sell any products that have cartoon characters or really bright colors that appeal to kids. We also take ID’ing our customers very seriously and will card people under 30 as soon as they walk into the store.”
The lesser of two evils?
For most people, vaping serves a utilitarian purpose: a smoking cessation aid. David Tavich, an Asheville native, began vaping to try to end his cigarette habit that began when he was 13 and grew to two or three packs per day. At 19, he was diagnosed with restrictive lung disease, which restricts his lungs from fully expanding and can send him into dangerous coughing fits that often require hospitalization.
Vaping helped Tavich quit smoking cigarettes over the course of a year when nicotine patches, pills and going cold turkey didn’t work. Vaping allows Tavich to relax without causing as much damage to his lungs.
“When I picked up vaping, a lot of my episodes of coughing fits or having trouble breathing cut down immensely, from every morning to once a month,” Tavich says. “Obviously, it would have been better for me to cut out nicotine altogether, but every time I have tried, it really puts me in a bad place, mentally.”
Vaping offers a similar physical and social experience to smoking. According to a study from the National Institutes of Health, the hand-to-mouth action, inhaling and exhaling vapor, and the social aspect of vaping can help alleviate the psychological cravings associated with smoking without the harmful effects of combustion, tar and many of the chemicals found in traditional tobacco cigarettes.
“I think that a big reason that nicotine patches and gum don’t really work is because you don’t have the same motion that comes with smoking,” Tavich says. “Nicotine isn’t the only part of a smoking addiction; a lot of it is the movement and social aspect that comes with it.”
Vapers can gradually reduce nicotine intake over time, making it easier to wean themselves off the addictive substance.
“The great thing about vaping as a cessation tool is that it can be customized exactly how a person needs,” says Ridgeway. “For someone who is trying to quit smoking, we can gradually lower the nicotine concentration until they are nicotine free.”
Dr. Letlhogonolo Tlhabano, a local pulmonologist with the Asheville Pulmonary and Critical Care Associates, thinks that more research is needed to determine the true effects of vaping.
“As a pulmonary physician, I wince when I hear about people voluntarily inhaling any foreign substance. We are already exposed to more environmental toxins than we realize, adding something else seems unwise,” Tlhabano says. “Vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, but multiple studies have already shown that it can have devastating effects, not only on the respiratory system but also on cognitive development.”
The rise of vape culture
While vaping was initially created as a smoking cessation tool, other aspects have ignited its popularity. Scott, a newcomer to Asheville, has been vaping for eight years and is a part of the niche subculture known as “cloud chasing,” in which he uses his vape to create billowing cloud designs.
“I never even smoked cigarettes,” Scott says. “My mom and dad both smoked, and I hated the smell. But then I saw vaping and thought, ‘Yeah, I can get on board with that.’ I like the hobby side of it — building my coils, trying to get the biggest cloud.”
The ability to create new flavors and turn vape pens into works of art is spawning a new vaping culture promoted on social media as well. Vapers soon noticed that they could blend flavors, juice smoke output, adjust temperatures and customize their pens. Enter the “mods,” or modifications.
Tavich notes that users can install different coils, adjust wattage or tinker with airflow systems to get bigger clouds, new flavors or longer battery life. He has custom-built over 20 vapes since he made the shift from cigarettes.
“Sometimes, I want to do tricks with the smoke so I will use one of my vapes with a higher coil count so that the clouds are bigger,” Tavich says. “Other times, I am really having a strong nicotine crave, so I will use a vape with a higher wattage output. It’s all up to personal preference.”
As for appearances, some change the device casing, add intricate designs or colored panels or incorporate LED lights.
“It really is an art form in its own right,” says Tavich.
Cloud chasers modify their devices by building custom electric coils, using high-powered batteries and selecting e-liquids with high levels of vegetable glycerin, which produces thicker vapor. Scott can create vapor clouds in the shapes of waterfalls, tornadoes and even a skull.
“There are some really talented cloud chasers in the vaping community that can do so much more than I can,” Scott says. “I know someone who is able to create a massive dragon that looks like it is flying through the air. With enough practice, the sky’s the limit.
“I love being a part of the vaping community, and when I go to the expos, I get to see other cloud chasers and the new tricks that they have created. It’s a surreal experience, and I would encourage anyone even remotely interested in cloud chasing to attend one.”
Vaping goes viral
Danielle Ridder, an Asheville resident and avid member of the “DIY e-juice” Reddit page, notes that she got into DIY vaping, another popular vaping subculture, through TikTok.
“I saw a TikTok of someone making their own vape juice and I thought it looked really simple,” Ridder says. “I went online and purchased all of the ingredients, and from there, it is as simple as making a cocktail.”
During an interview with Xpress, Ridder went through the steps needed to make a custom e-liquid. The recipe she chose is flavored like the popular candy, Nerds.
“Some of the recipes are a little more challenging,” Ridder says, as she consults the Nerd Lyfe recipe, which calls for a mix of five flavors: Dragonfruit, Marshmallow, Rainbow Drops, Red Licorice, and Sweet and Tart. She opens each bottle and carefully squeezes out a few droplets at a time.
Next comes the nicotine, which resembles a doll-sized plastic jug of gasoline. As she peels off the seal, she gets a little of it on her fingers. But that does not worry her: “This is the same as what comes in a normal vape cartridge, and I get that on my fingers all the time.”
The whole process takes Ridder about 15 minutes. After the vapor cloud evaporates, Ridder notes the benefits of homemade e-liquid. “Overall, it’s a lot cheaper to make your own e-juice than to have to buy it from a store every week, plus you can make whatever you want,” Ridder says. “All it takes is getting over the learning curve.”
But Ridgeway says that there are several safety factors that need to be considered.
“Making e-liquid requires you to have a really good understanding on how the chemicals mix together as well as the ratios that are needed,” Ridgeway says. “If someone doesn’t know what they are doing, they could accidentally be vaping toxic amounts of nicotine. Or, if they were not sanitary during the process, they could have gotten bacteria into the liquid and then get really sick.”
Reining in vaping
Regulating vaping varies by location. Buncombe County and the city of Asheville banned vapes in municipal buildings, public parks, recreation areas and in government vehicles. “I understand not vaping inside buildings or in vehicles, but it is frustrating that it also includes parks and other public areas,” Tavich says. “The vapors do not have a smell and they don’t cause secondhand highs. Why is it so regulated?”
Regardless of warnings or restrictions, for some people like Scott, vaping is here to stay, “I don’t think I will ever leave the vaping community; it’s just too fun to quit!”