Monday, May 12, 2014

The Wonderful World of . . . Vaping?

Let me start by saying I love smoking.  It's fair to say I have a smoking fetish.  I started smoking way back when I was in college, and not for social reasons but because I liked it.  For twenty years smoking has been a constant part of my life.  I never wanted to quit, but all these years I've been worried about there maybe coming a time when I'd have to quit, because I knew that addiction + habit + love of the thing would all make it very difficult.  Which is why it came as such a surprise to me when I unexpectedly quit smoking a few weeks ago.

Last month I looked into e-cigarettes, purely out of curiosity.  I can't remember what exactly prompted the googling.  I had no desire to quit, but I've been smoking for twenty years now and cigarettes aren't getting any cheaper (about $70 a carton, with all the taxes, and that'd last me about a week), so I thought maybe I'd explore alternatives. I'd never really heard of vaping and all I had seen of e-cigs were rather unsatisfying-looking smoking cessation devices.  I didn't even know it came in different flavors!

What really caught my eye as I was looking through links was a brand called Vapor Couture, which has been around a year or so and markets specifically to women, treating the e-cigs as something like a fashion accessory.

I saw the slim, colored batteries with their sparkly gem tips and they pushed my girly 'Ooo, pretty!' buttons right away.  The marketing worked. . .

I did do research, of course.  I looked into different brands, looked at reviews on Youtube, learned all I could about e-cigarettes and personal vaporizers.  After a couple days of this, I went ahead and ordered a VC starter kit, which included a couple batteries in different colors, some sample cartridges in different flavors (you can mix and match battery and cartridge colors along with flavors and nicotine strengths), and a charger. The packaging, by the way, was sumptuously over the top . . . high marks for quality.  I don't want to throw the box away!

So, my first vaping experience?  It was weird.  Familiar in some ways, but much different in others.  The vapor is not smoke - that's why it's called vaping and not smoking.  Nothing is burning, no leaves or paper, it's liquid being atomized by a hot coil in the cartridge, or cartomizer.  What's the liquid?  We'll get into that later.  It does feel a little different in the throat and chest than smoke.  There was some coughing at first, but I adjusted within hours.  The battery and cartridge are certainly heavier than a cigarette, so it took a while to learn to hold it gracefully (and dangling from the lips is right out of the question).  Having flavored 'smoke' was interesting and new;  my first experiences were with Fresh Mint and Passion Fruit.

It wasn't as instantaneously as satisfying as a cigarette, which gets nicotine from your lungs to your brain in seconds.  With vapor, the nicotine is mostly absorbed by the membranes of the mouth and nose - technically you don't even need to inhale it, just puff it, but what's the fun in that? - and it takes half a minute or so before it starts to take effect.  Some patience was required.  Also, smoking a cigarette is a finite thing:  you smoke for eight or so minutes until it's gone and then you're good.  A self-contained little ritual, more or less, once or twice an hour.  It's also a good timer, an "I'll head to bed after this last cigarette" sorta thing.  With an e-cig there's no defined end point.  You can easily overdo it and give yourself the nicotine queasies.  You have to adjust to a new method by puffing on it for a minute or two, or even just a couple of puffs, then setting it aside, repeat as necessary.  On the plus side you don't have to worry about juggling a cigarette or dangling it and trying to keep the smoke out of your eyes when you need two hands, you can just stick the thing in your pocket.

I was unsure if it would be able to replace the pleasures and familiarity of smoking, if maybe I'd use it as a novelty but still smoke regular cigarettes.  But, I kept at it.  On the second day I had one cigarette, and after... well, I haven't had one since.  I have half a carton sitting here and I haven't even been seriously tempted to have one.  I miss it, sometimes I even still automatically reach for the place where I kept my pack and momentarily get confused why there isn't one there, before remembering I have something else.  But I don't miss it that much, and I certainly don't have any actual cravings since I'm still getting nicotine along with puffy clouds of vapor, plus flavors.  But wait, there's more!  My smokers cough stopped entirely, my chest feels lighter and I can take deep breaths without wanting to cough, I feel better, and my sense of taste and smell are purportedly due to return.  I noticed this morning when I went for a walk, ascending the steep hill I live on, I didn't feel out of breath at the top.  I was breathing heavier, yeah, it's a hill, but I wasn't feeling starved for oxygen.  I forgot what that feels like.  Also, no more ashes or cigarette smell or embers burning little craters in the fuzz of my velour pants.  It's like having the benefits of quitting smoking while still smoking!  Still addicted, of course, but that never bothered me before, and there's the option of stepping down the nicotine amount in the liquid to zero if I ever choose to.

Alas, although I'm happy with the Vapor Couture e-cigs, and I've already stocked up on cartridges, have three batteries, and an awesome little pink portable charging case, they have their downside.  The batteries only last three to five hours of regular use, so you need to have at least two to keep switching them out to recharge.  The VC brand cartridges (the replaceable part that contains the liquid in an absorbent batting and the heating coil) are expensive, about $13 for a 5 pack, and a pack and a half a day smoker like me can easily go through two cartridges a day.  Not much cheaper than smoking regular cigarettes, or analogs.  You're definitely paying extra for the look and the name brand with them.  Also they only come in half a dozen flavors, two of those are tobacco flavors - I was always a menthol lady, myself - leaving me with only several to choose from.  They don't yet offer blanks (empty cartridges you fill yourself) like most other companies do, so you have to refill used ones yourself which can get messy and make a strange combination of flavors.  I found a site that sells blanks that fit the VC batteries, though, so that's good.  I don't know why VC doesn't sell blanks, it could only improve their sales.

But wait, there's even more. . .there's a whole world of vaping beyond the small cigarette replicas.  Personal vaporizers with mods and tanks, providing cleaner flavors and bigger clouds along with longer lasting batteries and larger liquid capacity.  You puff on 'em, kinda like a hookah.  Unbeknownst to many, an entire cottage industry has sprung up around vaping in the past six years.  Small companies tinkering with and improving their parts, people selling custom devices and liquids, in addition to the hobby side of it where people rebuild their heating elements.  Wanting to branch out from the small, if elegant, VC e-cigs and enjoy more flavors with greater ease (and also save money in the long run), I started ordering parts to assemble my own personal vaper.  Here's the nice bit o' kit I ended up with:

Looks kinda like a weird lightsaber hilt.
What we have here is a Provari mod with a purple butterfly J-Wrap cover.  It's topped with an Aspire Nautilus clearomizer tank (I want the pink glass for it but I can't find it anywhere), and a matching aluminum tip.  Altogether it's about seven inches tall.  In the tank at the time of the photo was a pina colada flavored juice, num num num.  While I'm writing this I'm using a lightly fruity, almost floral liquid which I bought at my local vape shop.

Sooo, if you're new to all of this and are even slightly interested, you might be wondering what the heck you're looking at.  Well, the mod (at the base) is the part that holds the battery and contains the circuitry, if there is any.  You push the button and that heats the coil in the tank that's screwed onto the top.  There are tons of mods made by hundreds of companies, each with different features and looks and price ranges.  I opted for one of the more expensive ones because of their reputation for reliability, but you can find perfectly good mods in any price range.  It's easy to get a small eGo battery for $30 or less.

eGo style batteries
The tank is what holds the liquid and contains the atomizer which turns it into vapor.  There's all kinds of configurations.  You can get cartomizers that function like larger versions of little e-cig cartridges, or tanks like the ones shown, or ones where you drip the liquid down directly onto the coils.  I won't go into all the stuff about volts and ohms and coils and all that jazz.  It's mostly over my head anyway.  The atomizer head will eventually burn out and need to be replaced after a week or two, so you either have to buy replacement heads or rebuild them yourself.  I'm lazy and clumsy.  I'll buy replacements.  For this model, the replacements currently run about four bucks apiece, and most models are cheaper than that. 

The tip, well, that's just the part you suck on.  Yep.  Not gonna make a joke.

So right now I'm using my mod for regular vaping and the VC e-cigs for convenience or when I want to feel fancy (or want the feeling of a cigarette in my fingers).  But what about the e-liquid, or e-juice, or just plain juice?  I still have trouble calling it juice because it makes me think of nicotine juice which just sounds horrible.  Regardless, juice has only a few ingredients, and it's highly customizable.

One ingredient is nicotine, which typically comes in strengths of 2.4 mg, 1.8, 1.2, .6, or 0.  As pack and a half a day smoker of light cigarettes, 1.8 mg worked for me pretty well.  The next ingredient is the flavor mix, whichever it may be.  The rest of the liquid is made up of propylene glycol (PG) and/or vegetable glycerine (VG).  Both are non-toxic and used in food and medicines - PG is used in asthma inhalers.  PG gives a stronger throat hit (the sensation of cigarette smoke) and carries more flavor, but doesn't produce much vapor and, as it absorbs moisture, can dry the bejeezus out of your mouth.  Drink a lot of water.  A few people report an allergic sort of reaction to PG, but then there's VG as an option.  VG is sweeter and makes thicker clouds, and it's smoother and easier on the throat.  It's also thicker and can clog up some devices a little.  Most juices come in a ratio of PG to VG, such as 20/80, 50/50, etc.  Or you can get them purely one or the other.  Apart from sometimes distilled water, that's it.  Quite different from the 4000 or so chemicals in cigarette smoke.

The best part of the juice is the flavors.  Pretty much anything!  Fruits, desserts, flowers, candies, nuts, etc. There are hundreds of sites that sell them, in addition to brick and mortar stores.  I'd only recommend getting them from a reputable domestic makers who use proper and sterile equipment because, after all, you're breathing the stuff.  Just as a small sampling of possible flavors, here are the offerings from a couple popular places:  Mount Baker Vapor and Virgin Vapor.  So many flavors.  I want to sample them all!  Mind you, I haven't yet tried any liquids from either of those places, but they seem to have a positive reputation.

But is vaping healthy?  Well, no one's certain of the long term effects, but it's unquestionably healthier than smoking.  Non of the ingredients are carcinogens - not even nicotine by itself.  Surprise!  Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor and raises the heart rate, but not much more than caffeine does, and you can always get juice with zero nicotine.  As for the vapor, it can irritate the nose and throat if you overdo it or are not used to it, but otherwise doesn't seem to be harmful.  There's lots of misinformation out there concerning vaping (like it being made of antifreeze), even from reputable news sources who don't seem interested in fact checking the rumors.  It's only been around for six years or so, but in that time no one's gotten sick from it, and everyone in the community boasts of great health improvement after switching from smoking.  I'm feeling great, myself.  So, we'll see!

So I say, if you're a smoker and you're looking for a change, go ahead and try vaping.  If you've tried a cheapie tobacco flavored e-cig from a gas station and didn't care for it, I suggest trying again with different equipment and a flavor of your choosing.  You could try one from Vapor Couture or their parent company, V2 Cigs, which offers larger batteries and a wider variety of flavor cartridges, including blanks (the aren't cross-compatible with VC).  I'm suggesting these simply because they're ones I've had positive experience with.  Or search around, there's lots of popular options out there right now.  If you're interested in jumping right into a personal vaporizer mod, you can look online or find your local vape store and see what they have.  You're sure to find a setup that works for you.  Whichever way you go, it's going to be far, far more cost-effective than cigarettes.  After the initial equipment investment, keeping up with replacements and liquids can run less than a dollar a day.  So maybe give it a shot, why not?