“Oh cool, you vape.”
A sentence that has never, ever been uttered. But here I am, a 35-year-old man, driving to work at 4am, patting down the passenger seat in search of this little box of patheticness. Because I couldn’t possibly start the day without a hit of Pineapple Ice, or Red Razz, or whatever ludicrously named vape I’ve guiltily bought after promising myself and my girlfriend that the last one was my last. In fairness, the Pineapple Ice is sensational and has remained my favourite flavour since day one. It’s like summer dancing on your tongue.
It all started when I was trying to lose weight. On the long commute home from London to Portsmouth, snacking was my nemesis. A bag of crisps here, a discount wrap there, and all of a sudden there was an extra 500 calories in my daily intake. It was just a habit and the need to do something with my hands.
A not-so-bright lightbulb went off in my brain. “There can’t be any calories in vapes – I should replace eating with puffing away.” I picked the apple and blackcurrant Lost Mary as my first simply because they were my favourite hard-boiled sweets when my grandparents would take me to the corner shop in Swansea as a kid.
The rush of nicotine is an undeniably euphoric sensation. If you’ve had that first drag of a cigarette, you’ll know. If not, then it’s like the weight being removed from your head. Your face tingles, everything above your shoulders floats for a few seconds and a feeling of calm washes over you.
It didn’t have the harshness of a cigarette, which I’ve been partial to over the years on a night out. And, above all, it’s really simple. No rolling a messy cigarette, no fighting with a lighter in gale-force winds, just a little box or stick you pull out of your pocket, suck, and put back again.
I was now among the 4.5 million vapers in Britain. In 2022, the proportion of daily and occasional vapers continued to be highest among current cigarette smokers (27.1%) and ex-cigarette smokers (16.5%). Like me, around 2.4% of adults who have never smoked reported that they were daily or occasional e-cigarette users in 2022, an increase from 1.5% in 2021. And that number is on the rise.
The biggest proportion of vapers are between 16 and 24-years-old. In March/April 2023, children experimenting with vaping had grown by 50% year on year. One in five children tried vaping in 2023, according to Action on Smoking and Health, up from 15.8% in 2022 and 13.9% during the first Covid lockdown.
Louise Ross, an expert in vaping and the chairperson of the New Nicotine Alliance, says: “We’re seeing people use a vape when they’re feeling distressed because it actually kind of gives them a bit of lift.
“And they don’t want to modify their mood with alcohol, so they do it with a vape.
“Compared with alcohol, vaping doesn’t cause car accidents, doesn’t give you a hangover, doesn’t cause fights.”
Plus, there’s the calories.
The average puff of a vape is around 0.05 calories. An entire disposable vape like a Lost Mary, then, is 30 calories. A pint of Guinness is around 210 calories – so an entire vape is the equivalent of a decent gulp of my favourite tipple.
It’s easy to see how anyone can get hooked on them. I certainly was, and it had taken less than a week. Before I’d even had a coffee, I was chaining them in the car at 4am on the way to work. At its worst I was getting through almost two disposable vapes a day.
According to a number of vaping websites, the typical disposable vape has the same nicotine as 20 to 40 cigarettes. Although seen as better for you than smoking, I was vaping the nicotine equivalent of up to 70 cigarettes a day.
Amy, my girlfriend, banned me from vaping in the house or in front of our kids. The front porch was off limits too, because “you can’t vape on the drive, our neighbours will see you and it’s embarrassing”.
She said: “It’s a pretty unattractive habit.” It’s hard to look masculine being followed by a cloud and holding a dainty, pastel-coloured box.
“And above all else, I was worried about what it was doing to your health.” So here I was, a middle-aged professional man sucking on a vape in my back garden. If it was raining, I’d sneak into the garage and puff away for a bit like a sad little addict. It was relentless.
When my parents were down to visit, I simply had to take the risk of vaping indoors to catch Mam’s reaction on video.
I’m so, so glad I did.
A traditional former head of PE in the Welsh Valleys, and a lifelong hater of anything unhealthy (aside from wine, gin and beer, that is), she was never going to take it lying down. “What the f…?” she snarled, incredulous as the vapour filled the lounge. A quick look at my Dad to make sure we weren’t playing a prank on her. Then the gold.
“You’re not vaping. What is that? I’ll smash it down your throat.”
I wish she had.
I couldn’t even get through my 30-minute cycle from Wimbledon into the office in central London without a drag.
Rummaging in my pocket to find the vape and taking my hands off the handlebars to take some rapid-fire drags.
I can’t describe how ludicrous I both looked and felt.
In the office, I tend to leave my desk only to get a coffee or some food before returning.
So one positive, if you can call it that, was that I was so desperate to fill my mouth with fruity air, my step count went through the roof.
Once or twice a day, I’d take a tragic lap of the block in Victoria to get my fill and then head back in, taking the quietest and most unusual routes in case I was spotted by a colleague. Before rugby, literally minutes before heading out for kick off, I’d be puffing away in the changing room.
Nowhere was off limits.
And it changed a fair few things about me and my body, too.
My mood swings were appalling. I’d find myself getting so grumpy about absolutely nothing. And, for some reason, my flatulence was out of control. Not only was I farting dozens of times a day, but the smell I was omitting was something else too. Pineapple Ice it was not, and my car quickly turned into a hazy chamber of hell on my commutes. It also gave me a splitting headache, from time to time.
And on more than one occasion, I had to compose myself because I thought I was going to be sick after inhaling too much.
As a non-smoker who got into vaping, the benefits aren’t great. It’ll make you feel relaxed if you’re under pressure, and it’ll make you alert. That’s about where it ends. The risks of vaping are still being evaluated. Leading charities and the NHS say vapes are far less harmful than cigarettes, and can help you quit smoking for good. But for people who never smoked in the first place and are now puffing away? Most of the research points to the fact that vapes contain and emit a number of potentially toxic substances, which could lead to an increased risk in heart and lung diseases. It’s safe to say it doesn’t promote healthiness.
Playing rugby, I felt fatigued quicker. Though there’s no science to back that up yet. And generally, if you’re basing your days and decisions on when you’ll be able to take a drag from a pitiful little plastic box, you’re not in a good place.
It was time to quit. But how?
Louise Ross says: “Think about why you want to quit and make sure that those goals are firmly fixed in your mind, and start putting limits in.
“If you used to vape everywhere at any time, and always have it in your hand or in your pocket, start leaving it in the kitchen or not taking it in the car, or saying that you won’t have a vape until 10am. You can also gradually reduce the strength that you use and start doing deep breathing exercises instead.”
It was easy for me. I got drunk and vaped a lot one afternoon in December. The hangover was so brutal that the thought of vaping again made me feel sick. So I stopped.
I’ll still vape when I’m out on the beers, but being clean of them is a weight off my shoulders. It can be all-consuming. My snacking habit was down to me starving myself to cut calories. As soon as I sorted my diet out, a coffee in the cup holder is all I needed. I’ll stick to coffee to wake myself up these days, I think.