Vape shops are like the new Walgreens: there seems to be a shop selling the electronic cigarettes on every corner. In Murfreesboro alone, there are 16 vape stores; in Nashville, there are at least 37.
They are quickly becoming a hangout equivalent to bars or hookah lounges, as they’re a popular spot for groups to congregate.
Vaping has led to a $3.5 million, still-growing, industry and has manifested itself as one of the newest subcultures in the United States.
“It started as getting people off cigarettes,”said Graham Vickers, an employee at Smoke and Mirrors Vapor House in Murfreesboro. “That’s the main goal, but it turned more into a hobby, a very social thing.”
Vape culture came to existence over the past few years when e-cigarettes and vaporizers came into popularity. Often mocked initially, the culture is typically associated with fedora-wearing bros and “cloud” memes.
“Working at a vape shop, we have everyone from 18-year-old freshman college kids to 60-year-old war vets who are coming in and buying stuff,” Vickers said. “It doesn’t have an age, besides 18 and up, obviously. It’s universal in its own way.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vapes are used regularly by several million people worldwide. With such wide usage, one wonders why vapes and the culture attached have broad appeal yet foster negative stereotypes.
The main reason is that vapor and e-cigarettes are not FDA-approved. To do so would be a difficult process, because each electronic cigarette is different, as they can be customized and changed.
Vapers can purchase kits, or buy completely separate parts and build their own vape. The “juices” (liquid that creates the vapor when heated) used are typically made of propylene glycol or a mixture of vegetable oils and nicotine.
Since the invention of the devices 13 years ago, there is little known about long-term effects. According to a 2015 study by Britain’s Department of Health, vaping can be up to 95% healthier than smoking cigarettes, but a similar study by the University of California suggest that vaping is just as bad as smoking.
While data remains ambivalent on the consequences of vaping, participants in the culture feel largely misunderstood.
Vickers says anyone who is against vaping is so “purely [because of] a lack of knowledge or, you know, misinformation.”
Vape culture began through the Internet when like-minded vapers began sharing videos and selling devices and equipment to each other. The online community is still thriving and has expanded with new mediums, such as Snapchat and Vine, where vapers share videos.
“There’s Facebook groups, Reddit, there’s Instagrams that are solely for vaping,” said Jon Tyler, an employee at Smoke and Mirrors Vapor House in Murfreesboro.
Many vapers take the culture seriously, spending hundreds of dollars a year on vape equipment.
“Once it becomes a hobby, your wallet is screwed,” Vickers said.
“There are people who come in and buy $200 of stuff every time,” Tyler said.
For newcomers, prices range, but the investment builds with prolonged usage.
“You could get a kit for around $25 and start there, which most people do,” Tyler said. “But the average would be around $70-$80 once you get started.”
As far as customizing and upgrading your vape, Vickers says there is “almost an infinite amount of possibilities.”
Despite a high initial investment, vaping is still a cheaper option. According to smokefree.org, a non-profit effort against tobacco consumption, the average smoker spends around $8,600 a year on cigarettes.
For many vapers, however, low cost and health improvements are just additional benefits to being a part of a culture of their own.
Masses of people have very recently started attending vape conventions. These host both men and women of all ages to come sample and buy products. VapeCon holds events in three cities across the country, including Chattanooga, Tennessee. They host vape trick and cloud-blowing competitions, as well as a Miss VapeCon USA pageant.
“The appeal of conventions is you have a hundred large companies that you would typically not get to meet face-to-face or try their products,” Vickers said. “And you get all of that at once.”
“Vape” was Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2014; it’s definitely a subculture that is gaining traction and making their presence known.
“It’s a very social thing,” Vickers said. “It’s the same thing as people who go to the bar and spend $50 every weekend.”
This story originally ran in MTSU Sidelines’ October 2016 print edition. For more information, contact Editor-in-Chief Sarah Grace Taylor or email@example.com