Chicago e-cigarette users create vaping culture / by Michael Epstein

The story was originally published on Medill Reports.

Jared Yucht started vaping — inhaling nicotine and water vapor through devices like e-cigarettes — to quit smoking, but it has come to play a central role in his life, both for work and play.

“It’s fun,” said Yucht. “It’s a hobby.”

It’s not just a hobby for Yucht who owns Smoque Vapours, a chain of specialty vape shops in Illinois and Wisconsin that sell a wide range of hand vaporizers, essentially e-cigarettes, and the chain’s own brand of artisanal “e-liquids.” These flavored nicotine solutions for vapers use refillable tank-based e-cigarettes and customizable hand-vaporizers called “mods.” Vape shops, which are exempt from Chicago’s citywide e-cigarette ban, are becoming natural havens for those who vape for a hobby. 

Where “cig-a-like” e-cigarettes serve as a gateway for smokers to transition away from the dangers of tobacco products, “mods” open the door for users to define their own vaping experience by fine-tuning the amount of vapor generated, the temperature of the vapor as it enters a user’s mouth and lungs and the design of the device delivering that vapor.

“It’s almost like a car,” Yucht said. “First you buy a little Honda Civic and you’re like, ‘I wish I had something with a little more power. Something that can get me out in traffic…’ and then the next thing you know, people are buying Corvettes.”

Jared Yucht, (left-center) owner of Smoque Vapours, with employees Stephanie Bowman and Michael Haynes. Frequent customer Scott Norris (far left) takes a drag from a modified vaporizer.

Jared Yucht, (left-center) owner of Smoque Vapours, with employees Stephanie Bowman and Michael Haynes. Frequent customer Scott Norris (far left) takes a drag from a modified vaporizer.

Yucht, 41, was a pack-a-day smoker managing production for his family’s furniture business before making the jump to to e-cigarettes. Once he did, he quickly began advocating for the practice and it didn’t take long for him to find a way to make vaping a more substantial part of his life.

“I was staying at home with the kids,” Yucht explained, “I was vaping, and it worked for me so well that I told my friend Ari, ‘hey, you’ve got to try this.’ Because every time we’d see each other, we’d start smoking. He was hooked the moment he tried it, and I’m like; ‘we should get other people to do this.’”

The most customizable mods, called “mechanical mods” because they have no electronic components, are actually the simplest version of a vaping device, with little more than a battery and an electrical circuit. Pressing the “smoke” button on the device closes the circuit, heating up a set of metal coils, attached to a cotton wick soaked with e-liquid. To control the volume of the vapor and the heat of the smoke is matter of altering how much power the device draws with each press. More power means hotter coils, which vaporizes more liquid.

More complex mods work in a similar fashion, but also sport a power regulator to ensure a consistent pull throughout the battery’s life. From there, more complex devices add electronic means of monitoring and controlling a device’s temperature and power use. The simplest mechanical mods can cost as little as $30, while high-end mods with extravagant features like LCD displays can run between $200-$300.

A shelf of “mods” at Smoque Vapours in Printer’s Row.

A shelf of “mods” at Smoque Vapours in Printer’s Row.

While mods offer vapers more options, there are considerable convenience trade-offs. Many are pocket size, but even the smallest devices seem massive compared to a cigarette or the simplest disposable e-cigarette. Moreover, the process of adding e-liquid to a mod, called “dripping,” involves removing a plate from part of the device and using a dropper to douse a cotton wick wrapped around the device’s heating coils, which also needs to be replaced often.

“It’s people who are looking to get more performance out of the device,” said Mike Haynes, manager of Smoque’s Printer’s Row location. “Not necessarily somebody who’s like ‘I want to blow the biggest cloud in the world’ but we get a lot of normal businesspeople who want something with a ton of battery life, a bit more of a hit to it. These are typically people who have already been vaping for a while. They haven’t had a cigarette for a while and they want something that works better than your average kit.”

Despite the extra work, Yucht has noticed that the number of long-term vapers has grown, and with them so has the demand for a wider range of vaping experiences.

“People are looking for what’s new and what’s out there,” Yucht said. “We [Smoque] are more for the beginner or the simple vaper, but we definitely have a fairly strong segment of people who use mechanical mods, build their own coils, put their own wicks in.”

What’s “new” and “out there” include engaging with vaping in ways that are simply not possible with cigarettes. “Cloud chasers,” for example, maximize their vaporizers’ heat and power to produce the thickest, most voluminous smoke they possibly can. Vapers take to YouTube to show off their work and discuss the best devices to pull impressive amounts of vapor.

“You can’t take a hit off a cigarette that going to put out as much smoke as I’m putting out vapor,” Haynes said.

Hobbyist vaping materials only represent a small portion of the vaping population. Yucht estimated that maybe 15-20 percent of Smoque customers use mods. That’s a relatively small percentage taken from an already discerning class of e-cigarette user.

That said, even a tiny piece of the vaping pie likely represents thousands of vapers. E-Cigarette sales exceeded $722 million in 2013, according to The Wall Street Journal. The majority of those sales came in the form of either disposable or refillable cartridge-based vaping kits without customizable components.

E-cigarette habits change dramatically in the transition from people attempting to quit smoking to the self-identifying vapers who use devices purely for pleasure. Many users, for example, agree that the number of times they vape has increased since they transitioned away from smoking, but also that they consume considerably less nicotine as they switched to more diluted e-liquid solutions.

Smoque employee Stephanie Bowman, 21, vapes every day but no longer consumes nicotine.

“I still like the feeling of it,” said Bowman, “but I just don’t need it anymore.”

Matt Brannen, another clerk at the shop, said he still uses e-liquid with nicotine from time to time, but only when he “feels like it.”

Yucht, who consumes about a third of the nicotine he did when first started vaping, said that demand for nicotine-free e-liquid is rapidly expanding.

Before they start chasing clouds or modding, though, Yucht believes that any user willing to go the extra mile starts out by trying to make vaping feel more like smoking.

“They don’t perform like cigarettes,” Yucht explained. “It’s similar — there’s the motion to your mouth, the repetition, etc. — but it’s not like taking a drag off a cigarette. It is different. It’s a kinder hit. It’s softer. People are looking for something that hits greater, that provides more of a simulation.

From a health perspective, the long-term health effects of vaping have not been studied. Despite facing a completely unknown future, many vapers are convinced that e-cigarettes are safe and that, if nothing else, vapor is healthier than carcinogenic smoke.

Government agencies and local municipalities are not as easily convinced. The American Lung Association’s statement on e-cigarettes points to the fact that, without government oversight, some currently available e-liquids and vaping products may include chemicals that may have a negative effect on a vaper’s health.

“The FDA has not approved any e-cigarette as a safe or effective method to help smokers quit,” the lung association advises on its web site. “When smokers are ready to quit, they should call 1-800-QUIT NOW or talk with their doctors about using one of the seven FDA-approved medications proven to be safe and effective in helping smokers quit.”

Standing to prevent any potential future health hazards, Chicago lawmakers banned vaping in most of the city’s indoor and public spaces in January with the Chicago’s Clean Indoor Air Ordinance. (Vape shops and private residences are exempt from the ban.) Many of the U.S. largest cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have adopted similar laws around the same time.

Yucht called media reports suggesting that e-cigarettes might serve as a gateway for teens to start smoking tobacco sensationalist and misinformed.

“I don’t feel bad about what I’m doing one bit,” Yucht said. “I do it around my kids. I don’t blow it in their face [sic], but there’s no second-hand smoke so I’m not anything to anyone but myself and I know I’m doing way better I was doing previously.”

Lead photo: Smoque Vapours employee Matt Brannen takes a vaping break. Michael Epstein/MEDILL