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Banning vapes, by a nicotine addict

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NOVEMBER 02, 2022

When I started high school, vaping wasn’t even on my radar. A friend here or there would make jokes about it, but it was widely considered gross or childish. By the time I was wearing a cap and gown, however, vapes were more common than driver’s licenses.

Now, it seems like our legislators are playing catch-up. This November, a near-total ban on flavored nicotine products is shaping up to be one of the most contentious issues on the ballot. It almost feels like Newsom just walked into the bathroom and I’m scrambling to wave the smoke out of the air.

As someone who’s now been vaping on and off for about five years, my neurochemistry quite literally seethes at the thought of a future where I can’t walk down Telegraph and find a dozen varieties of nicotine devices.

At the same time, when I see my own practices mirrored in people younger than me, the negative aspects I ignore in my own life come sharply into focus.

The main argument against the ban, made by the same companies that addicted a generation of soldiers to cigarettes, whose CEOs testified to Congress that their products weren’t addictive — is that buying tobacco products is already illegal for those under 21.

Essentially, if prohibition worked, it already would have. In my eyes, that logic is dangerously misguided, because, well, it never stopped me.

No one starts out buying their own devices. Nobody thinks, I wonder what nicotine feels like, and goes to the smoke shop. Overwhelmingly, a friend or an acquaintance offers it to you, laughing as you cough or don’t, smiling as the buzz hits you for the first time.

It starts as a seemingly harmless, inherently social activity. I found myself welcomed into this new social club that hides in the bathroom and ducks behind the gymnasium. As the weeks dragged on, the cravings began to rumble. I started looking for ways to acquire my own nicotine so I could hold onto my club membership.

And for the adults these products are supposedly designed for, vaping often goes unaddressed because, quite honestly, it’s embarrassing. These disposables look like flash drives or baby bottles or toy phones. They have cutesy brand names like Elf, Puff or Flum. They come brandishing the words mango, melon, mint or something else that sounds like it should be poured over a snow cone.

When I pull out a flavored disposable and exhale a cinnamon cumulonimbus cloud, it has none of cigarettes’ swagger or class. Vapes have this youthful cringe built in. It isn’t smoking, it’s vaping, a word which, to me, conjures the image of a preteen who blows rings at their mom across the dinner table.

Kids hide it from their parents because it feels adult, and adults hide it from each other because it feels childish.

To me, that’s the most insidious part — not the addictiveness, the shame. For underage users, vaping quickly becomes a private act, perfect for bathroom stalls and car windows. The fact that sneaking around is a part of the product’s personality makes it all the more tempting.

And we are nowhere near as discreet as we think we are. I see you walking into class, collar stained from hitting a disposable through your shirt, vapor curling out from the bottom of the sweater you’ve pulled over your mouth.

At my worst, I found myself keeping a mental checklist of people I knew had one. When they got up to use the restroom, I’d have an impulse to excuse myself so I could try to work “what flavor is that?” into the conversation.

Having those parasitic, parasocial relationships with our peers is detrimental to everyone involved.

We are the guinea pig generation. The jury’s still out when it comes to long-term health impacts. But I know that my singing voice or my ability to run up three flights of stairs is impacted, even if we don’t have peer-reviewed studies to convince ourselves.

The question isn’t about how this will affect me. I’m sure flavored tobacco will continue to exist on college campuses, or as the poster boy for quitting cigarettes. There will always be arguments that prohibition is ineffective or misguided, but the question to ask is, what do we want the future to look like?

When asked how I’ll be voting this November, my response isn’t necessarily based on my own desires. As someone who has happily given hundreds of dollars to nicotine devices that look like they came in a Happy Meal, my brain is going to throw up its hands if the industry changes in such a dramatic way. 

But when I imagine the middle and high schoolers swapping flavors in the handicapped stall, I do wish it were harder to obtain.

My confusing affection for nicotine is only because I’m used to it — my neural pathways are so well-trodden that change is going to feel like off-roading. But I’m willing to weather that change if it means that those after us won’t be exposed to the same level of flippancy and secrecy that I was.

Contact Luke Stiles at 


NOVEMBER 02, 2022