At the UK’s Biggest Vaping Show, the Future Looks Hazy
Vape Jam 2016 brought vapers together, and a shift in the industry was at the forefront of discussion.
Image: Tom Fenwick/Motherboard
The air is thick with sweet, dense fog—an impenetrable haze that falls somewhere on a scale between Victorian-era London and present-day Beijing. Around me are more snapbacks and tattoos than a Royal Blood gig, while in the distance a group of heavy-set men clamour for photos with a scantily-clad booth babe as though she were the last woman on Earth. A rumble of deep bass reverberates through the crowd and a DJ, raised high in a booth, bellows, "This next track goes out to all the vapers!"
I'm at London's ExCel Centre for the UK's second ever Vape Jam, one of the leading vaper expos in the UK and the largest in London, to get a handle on the future of an industry that stretches far beyond the cheap faux-cigarettes you'll find on the shelves of garage forecourts; one that's become a billions-dollar industry, with a community of supporters who (by today's queue at least) will stand in line for over two hours just to be a part of the action.
2016 is a pivotal year for the vaping community, with governments across the world starting to regulate the industry. In the US, the FDA is regulating under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, while in Europe, the EU Commission is about to enforce the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). It's a crossroads for an industry that's prided itself on self-regulation.
Vaping's rise is pretty obvious. The UK alone has seen rise to an estimated 2.6 million vapers and counting. The fact that an event like Vape Jam even exists is testament to the exponential speed at which vaping has increased in popularity, from the niche concern of a few years ago to a hobby that's breaching the mainstream.
"Isn't that beautiful—that one day we'll get to a point where we no longer need tobacco at all"
"The exhibitors are here to make vaping safer and smarter, to defy the negative press," Igor Kapovsky, owner of e-liquid distribution company Liquid Flow Distribution, told me as he showed me round the "Modders Gallery," a hub at the far end of the hall filled with the most ostentatious and expensive custom modifications available. This is a place where you can get custom fit cases for your device in the finest ostrich leather, buy gold and diamond-encrusted mods that cost upwards of $3,000, or order hand-carved wooden hardware, none of which would look out of place on a shelf in the sure-to-come vaping section of Liberty.
But it's not all about the glitz and glamour. As Kapovsky explains it, modders like these aren't just working towards the most bedazzled vape, they're trying to make the industry safer. "These guys aren't just vapers, they're engineers and chemists, and what they're trying to do is create something with pinpoint temperature control, so that dangerous compounds can't be formed in e-liquid—not that they were before," he's quick to point out. "But we want it to be completely clean."
Kapovsky, a heavy ex-smoker, sees vaping almost more as a worldwide support group than an industry. "People quit smoking and find a whole new community," he said. "They put their trust in us and we want to put that trust back into our business, so above all else we want to make vaping more efficient, clean, and safe for the consumer, and I think this is the year that we'll completely transition."
He sees products like Peel, which utilises non-tobacco nicotine, as a step in that direction. "I see that as being a bigger thing in the future, because it'll still have the same effect and the same nicotine hit," he said. "And because it's completely tobacco free, and isn't that beautiful; that one day we'll get to a point where we no longer need tobacco at all."
The arguments for tighter regulation range from as-yet-unknown health effects to the fact children may be attracted to sweet flavours. But regardless of intent, they generally group e-liquids under tobacco laws, and that's giving many vapers the vapors.
"There's such low barrier to entry, I would compare it to the app market"
In Europe, the Tobacco Products Directive, which was passed in February 2014 and is due to be implemented on May 30 2016, could potentially neuter the vaping industry, according to Rhydian Mann, the Welsh Campaign Manager for "the world's first and only vaping political party." Vapers In Power formed when the suggestion of including vape in the TPD was in it's infancy. "When the directive comes into effect, it's unlikely that the wide variety of products we have now will be available, and the advertising will be gone straight away," he told me in a coffee shop away from the commotion of the Vape Jam's main floor.
For Mann and his colleagues—who are all volunteers—Vapers in Power isn't about gaining political influence, it's about making noise as a party of protest. "We are primarily an advocacy group, but being a political party gives us an equal footing with the big guys," he said. "We might be seen as a gimmick party, but it's a gimmick that gets us noticed."
In terms of attitudes towards legislation, impending or enforced, the vaping industry doesn't seem set against regulation. In fact, a lot of people I spoke to were pro-compliance as long as it's done carefully, because they hope it will give legitimacy to an industry that's still often seen as a Wild West.
"At the moment there's such low barrier to entry, I would compare it to the app market. People see companies getting rich over night and think they can do it too," said Brett Reed, co-owner of the Orange County-based Praxis Vapers, which manufactures both hardware and e-liquid. "It's why conventions like this keep getting bigger, but it also means there's less quality control."
As tighter restrictions take hold, he sees the market getting pared down. "A lot of these companies won't be able to keep the pace, then it's going to be up to the few who are left to stand against government legislation and the influence of big tobacco companies who'll be the only ones who can afford to produce products in this industry."
In this David vs Goliath scenario, Reed sees products like the Pax Juul, far from the bejeweled contraptions in the Modders Gallery with its replaceable cartridges and slim profile, as the future. "Obviously there'll always be the expensive hobbyist stuff, but the way most people started was with tiny e-cigs because it began as a way to quit smoking, and you go with what you are familiar with," he said. "So I think the industry will head towards convenience and as battery tech advances we'll see things going towards smaller and more simple; all-in-one mods that increase the vape quality, but also make it easier for the consumer."
As I leave, it's hard to gauge the state of vaping in 2016. In some respects, it's never been stronger, with innovations in safety, flavourings, and delivery methods. But growing fears about an uncertain future seem at the forefront of people's minds. The community may be strong, but when the weight of governments and the deep pockets of tobacco companies collide with the young upstarts, the result is unclear.
In the central boulevard of the ExCel, away from the Vape Jam, a tannoy loudly intones a single message: "Please Do Not Vape Outside of the Conference Hall." But as I wander the vast corridor towards the entrance the air is thick, saturated with a thousand different flavours, and it makes me wonder if this genie can ever be put back in its bottle.