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The politics of vaping

A FEW weeks ago, I was walking down Bull Street and enjoying the magnolia scented breeze when I encountered a young man standing in front of an eating establishment.

As I got closer, I noticed he had something in his mouth that looked like a giant marker. Or perhaps a small musical instrument, the kind everyone used to have to learn to play in fourth grade. But instead of playing “Frère Jacques” for me when I passed by, he exhaled a massive plume that engulfed me in a moist, sweet-smelling cloud.

I was about to go all Furiosa on the dude for blowing smoke in my face when, *sniff sniff*, I realized it didn’t reek like burnt lung. In fact, it kind of smelled like a toasted cinnamon roll.

He must have mistaken my confusion for interest because he pointed the pen flute at me and asked, “Wanna vape?”

I most certainly did not. I coughed and swam out of his mouth smog as quickly as possible.

But I’ve been curious about the whole vaping phenomenon ever since. If it’s not smoke, what is it? Is it safe? Do smoking bans apply?

Is visibly exhaling on another person better or worse than just sneezing on them?

A quick Google revealed a world of e-cigarette advocates, adversaries, products, research and proposed FDA regulations. I learned that while vaping heats up flavored vegetable glycerin (called “e-liquid” or “e-juice”) to deliver a nicotine kick, it doesn’t require actual fire. Its users blow out steam, not smoke, essentially turning anyone into a human fog machine.

Vaping hasn’t been scientifically proven as “100 percent safe” but studies show it to be far less harmful than tobacco, and evidence supports that its controllable levels of nicotine can help smokers quit the coffin nails for good. The FDA has rolled out oversight restrictions and increased taxes that may be passed by the end of this month.

And yes, vaping is banned under most municipal and state smoking ordinances.

It’s addressed in the Savannah Smoke-Free Ordinance passed in 2010, which forbids the use of any “e-cigarette that creates a vapor” any place there are hired employees. The City of Pooler recently adopted a similar ordinance and has shown no mercy for anyone seeking exemptions—including hookah lounges and vape shops—and e-cigarettes are covered in legislation being considered for Tybee Island.

But what interests me is how this relatively new habit fits into a society that already hates smokers—and whether it’s here to stay.

Now, let me just disclose that there is nobody more self-righteous than an ex-smoker. Which is why I do not call myself an ex-smoker, even though I’ll be ten years without a cigarette this fall. Rather, I’m a pack-a-day smoker who is not currently smoking.

When people ask how I finally quit, I say it’s simple: Every day when I get up, I don’t smoke. (I said simple. I didn’t say easy.)

As foreign as vaping may seem, I could never begrudge anyone else’s nicotine jones. I know what it’s like to experience life as a raging Wookie until you’ve sucked down a cig. I have huddled under many tiny awnings outside in the rain. I know all too well the shameful relief of the giant clear smoking box in the airport.

Even now, when I see someone clutching the familiar blue box that was my BFF for 15 years, it’s like seeing someone make out with a bad ex-boyfriend. I mean, I want nothing to do with his toxic ass, but there’s still a tug at my heart, y’know? Plus, the bastard still owes me three hundred dollars and never returned my Suzanne Vega album.

Wait, what are we talking about?

Oh right, taking a steambath in someone else’s open maw.

To find out whether subjecting others to your effluvia is an acceptable part of vaping culture, I headed over to Vape Savvy, one of several vape shops that have sprung up in the past year.

Owner Jason Luu was horrified when I told him about the bro on the street.

“No way, that’s just bad manners,” admonishes Luu, shaking his head. “Not vape etiquette at all.”

An enthusiastic proponent of the vape boon, Luu was still a smoker when he opened up on Oglethorpe a year ago. He says he’s found that in general, vapers are far more conscientious than their fuming counterparts. “There are no butts, no ashtrays to empty...this is a much cleaner lifestyle.”

Vape Savvy acts as a private VIP lounge where members can buy the latest in high-end vaping hardware or just sprawl on one of the leather couches and “mix minds” with others who share the lifestyle, including young adults, professionals, mother vapers and father vapers. (The city ordinance still forbids vaping in any place of business.)

It offers a menu reminiscent of a hipster donut shop, with complex flavors like “Graham Cracker Waffles topped with Blueberries and German Sweet Cream” and “Chocolate Peanut Butter Infused with Maple Pecans” crafted from scratch by resident e-juicemaster Bobby Goldner.

The gourmet element attracts plenty who have never lit a cigarette, and Goldner sees vaping as an activity that can not only replace smoking but transcend it.

“This is evolution,” says Goldner, who smoked a pack a day for 20 years and heralds vaping as a more effective nicotine reduction alternative than Big Pharma’s patches and pills. “We are creating an industry, and it isn’t going away.”

He’s right: Vaping is in the “mist” (ha, see what I did there?) of a gold rush right now, generating $3.5 billion in 2014 and expected to double that by the end of this year.

Reuters reported last week that one in 10 Americans now vapes, with a start-up cost of anywhere from $100 to $500. E-juices can run $10-$50 a week.

That kind of business has the rapt attention of the government, and there are worries that Big Tobacco’s stranglehold on Congress will smother the independent market altogether via legislation and “sin taxes.”

Vape advocates say they already self-regulate, catering to only those over 18 and using only simple, well-known ingredients. They’re mobilizing politically to protect a less-harmful way to puff as well their recreational rights, and there appears to be a close-knit community not just online but in real life.

“People are so thankful to be off cigarettes that they come together,” says Luu, who organizes customers to feed the homeless and help with other civic projects. “Vapers forge strong bonds.”

As far as I could tell in my foray into the vape world, that rude boy on Bull was an exception to a growing community of conscious consumers looking to reduce their dependence on Big Tobacco’s poison teat.

We already vilify smokers in this society, and it doesn’t seem fair to penalize vapers the same way as long as they keep their vapors to themselves.

But I shan’t be vaping anytime soon, as I’m full up on expensive habits: After I stopped buying cigarettes, I channeled my addiction into my shoe closet. If someone invents a pacifier that can keep me off of Zappos, please let me know.