Reflections on vaping 1: An introduction to the world of cloud-chasing
This post is the first of a series on vaping and vape tricks by Rebecca Oxley, post-doctoral researcher in anthropology on the Life of Breath project. Rebecca is currently looking for people to share their stories about living with breathlessness.
E-cigarettes can make the breath visible in a way comparable to conventional cigarettes. Yet the cloud emitted by these devices has a very different substance to smoke, and the experience and technique of use is very different. Exhaled cloud is malleable; it can be tweaked, played with, and this is evident in the world of ‘vape tricks’ where specific techniques can result in amazing visual spectacles. This is the first blog entry on such tricks (with more to come as I continue my research) in which I describe and reflect on attending a cloud-chasing competition.
Walking through a long, narrow room, hazy with vapour, my friend and I navigated past the three-person-deep queues to the shop counter. They were here to sample the new vape juice or E-liquids the store had to offer, as well as attend the cloud-chasing qualifying round of a nationwide competition that the store is hosting – the main reason we were there. Walking through to the outside vape garden, I had a feeling of being inside a street-culture Willy Wonka factory, passing through clouds of watermelon, mint, cookies and milk, apricot pastry. Someone remarked that their juice had a sweet TH (‘throat hit’ or inhale), but was spicy on the exhale, and that only certain tanks (E-cigarette kits) worked. I was intrigued, but was rather glad I had invited my friend along – she vapes (I don’t), and was acting as guide – and more importantly, as a translator. This was my first immersion in the world of ‘vape tricks’ and the jargon and abbreviations felt like a different language. For instance, PV means ‘personal vaporizer’; ‘mods’ are modulated devices; and ‘Modders’ like to build their vaping device themselves. Sitting on a bench which looked onto the ‘stage’ for the competition (elevated wooden decking as you might find in an upscale beer garden), I watched one Modder (a competitor) assemble his E-cigarette with a specially designed toolkit. Builds must be completed in 30 minutes, lowest ohms = 0.10; dual coils only, approved by the competition committee and confiscated until the cloud-chasing ‘battle’ began. The competition started a good hour late, due to video set-up, arrival of judges and (as far as I could gather) competitors being late to assemble their kit.
I spent the wait taking in the scene and chatting with those vaping: slow, rhythmic conversations between puffs from PVs and gulps of herbal tea or organic coffee. I felt a little left out, given that I could not join in small talk centred around favourite ADV (all day vape) flavours. There also seemed a certain conversational etiquette: for example, it was not polite to ask how long you had been vaping, although some were pleased to announce that they were ‘old-school, vaping from the start’, the late 2000s. Fruit and cocktail flavoured E-liquids seemed popular, and there were very few Nicquid (Nicotine E-liquid) vapers in the increasingly foggy outdoor space. The crowd was made up of all ages (18+), from a range of cultural backgrounds, mostly wearing monochrome with some type of graffiti writing. Conversations varied, but I managed to pick up a few interesting snippets that spoke to how vaping (as an emerging phenomenon) has certain unknowns in terms of how it fits in with conventional cultural values and/or notions of health. For instance, there were considerations of whether vaping was halal or haram (forbidden) in Islam. There were contemplations about vaping indoors, and whether this was creating a healthier atmosphere than common air fresheners, which were perceived as harmful indoor pollutants. One woman let me know that the smell from cinnamon roll flavoured vapour had helped sell her friend’s house! She also told me how she found it easy to deter her under-age children from vaping, given that it tastes just how it smells. Second-hand vaping was not considered an issue. Most of those I talked to considered vaping a healthy alternative to smoking, quoting the Public Health England statistic that vaping is 95% safer than smoking, despite relatively little being known about the long-term health effects. A few mentioned that they had successfully used vaping to quit smoking. These conversations appeared to align with or reflect the promotion of vaping by E-cigarette vendors as a healthy and economically sustainable lifestyle product.
When the competition was about to begin, the vape garden became very crowded. The competition facilitator, a staff member of the store, announced the state of play: two entrants were to stand back to back, there would be a count down from three, then up to five: on one you should inhale and on five you should exhale. The vapour or cloud exhaled was to be measured subjectively by the judges on quality, size and (most importantly) how far in length the cloud travelled. Each heat was the best of three rounds. The judges were those with established credibility in the vaping industry, known for their vaping tricks, and a few came with their own group of fans. Whereas some cloud-chasing competitions offer weight classes, or a separate women’s division, all contestants in this cloud-chasing competition appeared male, and were competing in the same division. The battles were quick, and highly interactive: the clouds were blown across, and floated for a brief moment above, the heads of the discerning crowd. Inhaling, competitors leaned forwards in a body comportment I have seen practised by those living with breathlessness in order to breathe deeply. Exhaling, competitors stood up, using this movement as extra power to exhale as quickly and strongly as possible. What struck me was that this was a competition not only of skill and technique, but of lung function and capacity. Potentially those with larger, and perhaps more healthy, lungs were those who succeeded in their heats. In this sense, measurement or judgement of competitors was the result of a specific practice that could be metaphorically compared to spirometry, considering lung function through spirometry is measured on the volume and speed/flow of exhalation, and requires a full in-breath.
Unfortunately, we only managed to watch around eight heats: being enveloped by the ever-thickening fog had given me a headache. I headed outside for a breath of fresh air.