Via The Henley Vaporium
How do you know when a trend is officially in vogue? When it scores 1,700-square feet of real estate in SoHo. New York City's first e-cigarette bar, The Henley Vaporium, opened last week in Manhattan's chic neighborhood, promising to lure the subculture of hyper-zealous vapers that hang out in the corners of the internet discussing "Mods" and "nic-juice" out from underground.
If you're a "noob" that hasn't heard of vaping, here's the quick 411. Electronic cigarettes work by vaporizing a liquid, usually infused with nicotine. It's widely believed—and just as widely refuted—that by removing the chemicals released when tobacco burns, smoke-free cigarettes are a healthy alternative to "analog" smokes. And so they're touted by some as a great way to kick the habit. The nucleus of the vape community is ex-smokers eager to spread the good word.*
Other vapers are seduced by the technology, which has become much more sophisticated since e-cigs erupted on the scene. Any self-respecting vaper has a PV (personal vaporizer), or Mod (personalized, or "modified" piece.) From there, you can customize basically every aspect of your vaping experience—the refillable cartridge or "tank," atomizer or wick, nicotine level (samples at the Vaporium range from zero to 24 mg—the equivalent of a heavy smoker), mAhs (Milliamp per hour, an indicator of battery life), and the intensity of the TH (throat hit) when inhaling.
Then there's the plethora of flavors of liquid, variously known as e-liquid, juice, e-juice, nic-juice, or ass juice if it tastes real nasty. You can vape a straight tobacco flavor, cotton candy, chocolate, or more stonerific varieties like "Hoops" and "The Dude." Or DIY vapers will mix their own liquid recipes.
This is where vape shops come in. At first, these were places to sample flavors and try out equipment, then they brought couches and foosball tables and flatscreen TVs into the shops so you could vape in the comfort while perusing their products. Next came vape lounges with bars, cafe-style tables, juices, and snacks. And now, retail boutiques.
Like so many things in Manhattan, The Henley Vaporium is unique in size and style, and made a splash when it opened last week. But it's by no means the first vape bar in the country. Actually, the trend’s taken root mostly in California, especially health-conscious, New Agey SoCal.
In the Los Angeles area, you can vape at The Vapor Spot, Vape Industry, and E Cig City 4. There's The Vape Bar in San Jose, AltSmoke in Ohio, the Vape Shop in Pennsylvania, Vape Lounge in Maryland, and countless others—plus "B&M" (vape-speak for brick-and-mortar) shops popping up all over. And business is booming: Bloomberg News recently reported that storefronts shuttered by the recession are reopening as vape shops.
The real tipping point for vaping won't come until eyeing that cute girl from behind a cloud of vaporized e-liquid oozing from your steampunk Mod actually looks cool.
The health ethos makes sense: There's little reason to puff on a digital cigarette unless you're avoiding its cancer-causing doppelganger. Indeed, the states with the lowest smoking rates—California, Utah, Minnesota, and Hawaii—have the biggest vape scenes, Gregory Conley, legislative director for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association told me. "Part of that just might be, it's Los Angeles, it's the new thing to do, it's electronic," Conley said. "It may have just picked up there because people are more concerned about image."
But if e-cigs are ever going to replace the old-school variety entirely, you're going to have to incorporate the social, nightlife aspect of smoking into vape culture. As a friend of mine rightly pointed out, it's hard to see the point of going to bar to smoke something that doesnt really fuck you up.
Yeah, people like cigarettes and coffee. But they like cigarettes and alcohol even more. Yeah, the hookah bar thing sort of took off, but people like standing outside a noisy bar with a group of fellow ne'er-do-wells, shooting the shit over a pack of Marlboros. If you ask me, the real tipping point for vaping won't come until eyeing that cute girl from behind a cloud of vaporized e-liquid oozing from your steampunk Mod actually looks cool.
The will-e-cigs-ever-be-cool debate has yet to be settled, though the “vapologists” at Henley think that spaces like theirs will help boost vaping’s image. And they could be right, because they seemed pretty damn cool, and so did most of the clientele while I was hanging out there on a Sunday evening.
The owner, Talia Eisenberg—a self-described "long-time smoker and former party girl"—told me there are three main categories of people the shop is targeting: ex-smokers or people trying to quit, vapers, and curious stoppers-by that want to see what all this is about. That's a key market, and a tough sell—young people with no interest in smoking tobacco that could get into vaping anyway. "Most of the population isn't interested in smoking," Conley said. "Even if it is fake smoking."
The group she didn't outright name? Stoners, obviously. It’s a vaporizer, after all. If you’ve got a vape with a refillable tank, you can easily pack it up with THC oil and get high as a Georgia pine without any conspicuous aroma. To that end, there have been a recent spattering of fear-mongering reports on the new trend of kids walking around getting stoned in public with vapes they bought online or at the B&M store on the corner—especially in Colorado and Washington, where recreational cannabis is now legal.
Granted, it's not like there aren't already vaporizers sold specifically for smoking weed, but the rising popularity of e-cigs definitely makes it easier to get high on the sly. “Do you want to see a 15-year-old with a vaporizer making like he has an e-cigarette but there’s grass in it, the liquid version of marijuana?” Massachusetts State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez recently asked, completely butchering the slang.
He’s one voice of many pushing for restrictions against selling vapes to minors—there currently aren’t any in place. We’re still in the Wild West when it comes to e-cig laws. They aren't yet regulated by the FDA, which is biding its time while health debate plays out and experts gather more conclusive research. A few states have banned public vaping already; others are trying to, including New York.
If the FDA does decide that electronic cigarettes are subject to all the same regulations as their hyper-taxed, increasingly banned, castigated analog counterparts, that could blow the lid off the whole thing. At the least, it could force the movement to retreat back to the halls of Reddit and Google Hangouts from whence it came—and out of the trendy SoHo boutique.
*Correction 10/16: This article previously labeled ex-smokers promoting e-cigarettes as ”ANTZ”—Anti-Nicotine and Tobacco Zealots. In fact, ANTZ are the people who want to ban, tax, and regulate e-cigarettes.