When I walked into the "Thank You for Vaping" event at Manhattan's Museum of Sex last night, the room was cloudy with smoke as if I'd time-warped back to a 1960s cocktail party on Madison Avenue. But instead of the stench of burning tobacco clogging the air, it was the aromatic scent of a room packed with people vaping flavored e-liquids to protest New York City's electronic cigarette ban.
The city's strict e-cigarette restrictions, one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's final acts before leaving office last fall, lump vaping in with smoking traditional cigarettes, and outlaw the use e-cigs in public places like bars or parks. Or sex museums.
The law passed in December and goes into effect throughout the city today, right on the heels of the Food and Drug Administration's proposed regulations to further restrict the sale and use of the digital cigs.
Staring the legal crackdown in the face, the zealous vape community and its booming, moneyed industry is braced for a fight.
Bill Godshall, a long-time public health advocate who spent years fighting for anti-smoking laws, told people at the event to try to prevent federal regulations by contacting their representative and telling him or her, "don't let the FDA take away these products that are saving my life."
Godshall is in the camp of e-cig advocates that strongly believe the tobacco-free nicotine products are healthy alternative to smoking butts, and that cracking down on the industry would be doing a disservice to the public.
But promoting e-cigs' as a smoking cessation tool is still a very contentious issue.
When Godshall asked the crowded room, "How many people here have quit smoking from vaping?" no more than 10 people raised their hand. But he told me later that he's talked to thousands of vapers who say they're living a healthier life thanks to the devices.
Until there's more conclusive scientific research on the health effects, anecdotal evidence and public image is largely driving the conversation—and the policy-making. Advocates are fighting against the onset of anti-vaping laws and the organizations lobbying lawmakers to pass them, specifically everyone's favorite lucrative corporate villain: Big Tobacco.
At issue is the concern that proposed federal regulations—which restrict the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors, require warning and ingredient labels on products and mandate that e-cigarette manufacturers get FDA approval—will wind up squashing nascent small vape businesses in favor of the products made by big tobacco companies, which can spare the time and money to go through the approval process.
In other words, a fuck-the-man, David and Goliath-style battle is brewing. But the vaping Davids aren't stoner-like radical activists as you might imagine; this is New York, where business is the universal language, and there’s money to be made from vaping's ascent.
If SoHo's swanky Henley Vaporium was a sign that the vape scene has come out from underground and is penetrating the mainstream, last night's event seals the deal. (Henley founder Talia Eisenberg was there donning a "Fuck Big Tobacco" shirt.) Attendees mingled with glasses of wine and High Life, in a darkly lit venue strewn with Playboy magazines and a DJ mixing next to the cocktail bar.
It felt more like a fancy club than political protest, but the message was clear: get your hands off our vapes. If not for the benefit of the public health, than for the nascent industry attempting to distance itself from the toxic habit that society has been trying to kick for decades.