And it’s not just famous people—New Yorkers are struggling with their not-so-secret habits, too. The night before the United Nations General Assembly met last month, Maggie Norris, an Upper East Side clothing designer, was nervously tapping her feet inside the grand entrance to the Waldorf-Astoria. While the leaders of 90 different countries gathered for an awards ceremony, Ms. Norris fingered her contraband.
“Do you think I can use this in here?” she asked us, brandishing her electronic cigarette. She turned her back and discreetly inhaled, releasing a puff of water vapor. We stood guard: no one had noticed. Halfway through the ceremony, the designer got up and went outside for an actual smoke. “I occasionally lapse,” she explained as she bummed a Parliament.
Ms. Norris has been using e-cigarettes for three years; they helped her pivot from a decade-long pack-a-day habit. She liked the fact that she could “vape” inside New York restaurants, since the city’s authoritarian health czars have not yet decreed that blowing out nicotine-enhanced water vapor indoors poses the same threat as smoking in a public park.
“It’s a nice thing to do when you don’t want to hurt yourself or other people,” she said. “Most of the time, people don’t even notice that I’m doing it.”
Though countries including Singapore, Hong Kong, Brazil, Australia and Lebanon have banned e-cigs, an estimated 2.5 million were sold in the U.S. last year. Here, they are available in disposable and rechargeable form everywhere from bodegas to newspaper kiosks, and you can “vape” legally anywhere in the city, including indoors.
Because they’re not taxed as heavily, e-cigs are cheaper than the analog version. A recent Gizmodo.com comparison found that New Yorkers could save anywhere from $1,520 to $3,000 a year switching to e-cigs. Their relative value has helped a once-fringe trend become, if not ubiquitous, then at least an increasingly common sight in New York City. Still, it’s doubtful they’ll soon catch up to their cancer-causing cousins.
But why not? While there’s been no conclusive study as of yet, common sense dictates that e-cigarettes—which don’t bring smoke into your lungs—can at the very least claim to be a marginally healthier substitute for both smokers and those around them. There are at least 69 cancer-causing carcinogens in tobacco smoke, while the process of vaping with an e-cig involves only trace (if any, depending on your brand) amounts of tobacco, and no smoke. And since most people don’t just pick up an e-cigarette habit out of nowhere—they switch in an effort to quit or cut back—why aren’t any e-cigarette companies marketing themselves as a safer alternative to cancer sticks, or at least a way to quit, like nicotine gum or patches?
One reason: what little research has been done on e-cigarettes is all over the map and largely inconclusive. While the European Respiratory Society claimed that e-cigs cause respiratory blockage, it is unclear whether these effects are long-term. “We do not yet know whether unapproved nicotine delivery products, such as e-cigarettes, are safer than normal cigarettes,” said one of the study’s authors. Meanwhile, the European Society of Cardiology found that the product was not linked to heart disease, and an American study published this month in the peer-reviewed Inhalation Toxicology journal found that “the risks of secondhand vapor from electronic cigarette use are very small in comparison to those associated with secondhand tobacco smoke.” Health Canada has warned against e-cigs, saying that because it’s impossible to know the equivalent nicotine amounts that one is consuming with every “drag,” they could possibly cause nicotine poisoning. (There has yet to be a reported case.)
Dr. Kimberly P. Lindsey, a smoking researcher at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., will only tentatively speculate about the health effects of e-cigarettes, but she told The Observer, “I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to think that e-cigarettes are safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes.” She made sure to qualify this statement, saying that this was in no way a final analysis, and that more study was needed.
There is another reason e-cigarettes aren’t being marketed as the healthier alternative to smoking: manufacturers are not allowed to claim that their product helps people quit, unless they want to find themselves suddenly under the watchdog gaze of the Food and Drug Administration. The moment e-cigarettes are sold as a smoking-cessation aid, à la the patch or nicotine gum, they become classified as a drug-delivery system and can be regulated by the FDA.
So far, the manufacturers of e-cigs have wanted no part of that.
That may be why Kevin Davis, director of business development for the e-cigarette company Green Smoke, is careful to avoid any mention of quitters when describing his customer base. “The typical e-cigarette user is an adult smoker who, for one of many reasons, likes electronic cigarettes,” he said. “That’s who we’re targeting, and that’s primarily who is using our product.”
Even though e-cigarettes bear little resemblance to their Philip Morris brethren, Will doesn’t use them indoors, or even in parks, where cigarette smoking is illegal. “The last thing I want to do is explain to a cop what this is,” he said. “That would just be the most humiliating thing in the world.”
But to Will, e-cigs have an even bigger drawback: “They look totally lame.”
He’s not wrong. E-cigarettes are the neutered version of the real thing. Just try imagining Jean-Paul Belmondo vaping on a piece of plastic with a light-up tip in Breathless, or James Dean trying to flick a finished e-stick while leaning against the hood of his car. Add to that the silly names of some of the bigger brands: Blu cigs, Nebula, Yeti, Dura and 510 … they have nothing on Marlboros or Camels in the badass department. At least not yet.
Celebrities who smoke them don’t even try to play up the cool factor: While Johnny Depp allegedly petitioned to have his character smoke electronic cigarettes (like he himself does) in The Tourist—the first mainstream film to feature e-cigs—his character was a nerd, a community college professor. By the end of the movie, the math teacher has hooked up with Angelina Jolie and revealed himself to be an international European outlaw who, in one of the final scenes, discards his dorky e-cig and brings out his old pack. The message is clear: outlaws don’t vape.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have inadvertently boosted the transgressive image of e-smokers when he passed a law in September barring minors from buying them and restricting their use near schools. There’s also the common complaint of those who worry about being exposed to e-cigarettes’ secondhand “smoke” in restaurants and confined spaces. When we called Manhattan’s prestigious Core Club to see if it would let in someone with an e-cigarette, we were told that “no smoking whatsoever” was allowed in the club.
“But what if its not smoking?” We pressed. The employee on the other side of the line hesitated.
“No, I’m sorry, it still wouldn’t be okay,” she said.
The confusion extends to airlines. In 2011 the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood claimed that the in-flight smoking rule covered e-cigs as well, saying, “Airline passengers have rights, and this new rule would enhance passenger comfort and reduce any confusion surrounding the use of electronic cigarettes in flight.” This was the same year when a man on a Continental Airlines flight from Portland to Houston caused the plane to be grounded when he refused to quit puffing.
But it’s not a uniform decision. On a recent trip from Newark to Houston on American Airlines, we were told by a confused flight attendant that vaping in the cabin “should probably be okay.”
WHILE IT’S DOUBTFUL that e-cigs will ever be hip, a small-but-growing subculture of proud “vapers” is trying to change that.
Spike Babaian is the co-owner of VapeNY, which she bills as New York’s only e-cigarette store. It’s actually more of a kiosk, tucked away in the basement of a mini-mall in Jamaica, Queens.
“Don’t call it smoking; there’s no actual smoke,” she stressed, “What’s I’m doing is ‘vaping.’” Ms. Babaian, who previously worked in the adult entertainment sector, spent our conversation sucking on a vaping contraption that looked like a small walkie-talkie, which she wore on a lanyard around her neck.
While most e-cigarettes come pre-filled and are not designed to invite tampering with the liquid inside, Vape-NY peddles the e-cig equivalent of rolling your own.
In a booth frequently mistaken for a head shop, Ms. Babaian displays refillable light-up machines that look like anything from highlighters to small sex toys. Behind the counter she stocks e-cig refill cases containing liquid nicotine bottles from a Florida lab, with only the vaguest warnings and a barely legible ingredient panel. The whole endeavor looks like a smack kit, and the 1.1 percent label on the liquid … well, that invites the question: 1.1 percent of what? These products are potentially more worrisome than regular e-cigarettes as well, since nicotine in liquid form—no matter what percentage—can be transmitted transdermally. Accidentally squirt some on your skin and you may be in for a nasty surprise.
“People are interested when they see us vaping,” Ms. Babaian said. VapeNY started holding conventions several years ago, and now a couple hundred people (according to their count) attend its functions. Ms. Babaian also has a podcast every Wednesday on which she talks to other “vapers.” If she had their way, everyone who vaped would be doing so proudly,
At least as proudly as Ms. Heigl, who even got Mr. Letterman—a legendary but now former cigar enthusiast—to take a puff of her device on his show.
“This is remarkable,” he said, blowing steam rings and predicting the product would “do the trick” in getting people to quit. But don’t expect Montecristo chewers to make the switch overnight. As they say: old habits die hard.