The Wiki Man

Spontaneous recombustion: how vapers have re-invented pipe-smoking in electronic form

EU plans to ban all devices except ‘cig-alikes’ will destroy an innovative new industry

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

A fascinating newcomer on the British high street is the vape shop. These were perfectly described by my friend Paul Craven as ‘like a cross between an Apple Store and an Elizabethan apoth-ecary’.

In the splendid All About da Vape in Deal, there is a glass cabinet full of new, hi-tech ‘mods’, ‘tanks’ and ‘coils’, while on rows of shelves behind the counter is a Cambrian explosion of coloured bottles containing e-liquid in many strengths and flavours, hipsterishly labelled Suicide Bunny, Jimmy the Juice Man or Miss Pennyworth’s Elixirs; I recently bought a bottle of something called Unicorn Puke.

Yet to anyone over 40 it all seems strangely familiar in a Proustian kind of way (and yes, a company called Bordo2 makes a flavoured Madeleine de Proust e-liquid — £12.99 for 20ml). The memories the shop brought back were of what a good tobacconist was like 30 years ago, when chaps still smoked pipes.

In a way, the whole vaping market has mutated in a way no one could have foreseen: rather than simply replacing cigarette smoking (sales of ‘cig-alike’ devices have peaked) the market has spontaneously reinvented pipe-smoking in electronic form.

Unlike cigarette-smoking, where a few huge brands dominated, the pipe-tobacco market was hugely fragmented (unless you smoked Clan or St Bruno, which nobody of any discernment did). Cigarette smokers had a repertoire of brands they would smoke in extremis, but pipe men were generally fiercely loyal to very few — which is what made old tobacconists’ shelves so magically varied. British pipe-smokers were also naturally insular because, once you left Blighty, all foreign pipe tobacco was unimaginably disgusting. The commonest French brand (St Claude, I think) was positively sulphurous.

All the old pipe-smoker behaviours are re-emerging. Always wearing a jacket (to carry your equipment); strongly divergent opinions on flavours; obsession with equipment and accoutrements; even the camaraderie between enthusiasts. When a friend was recently stopped at airport security because the X-ray had detected his device, the operator wanted to chat about his ‘mod’ — the modern equivalent of ‘I say, is that meerschaum a Dunhill White Spot?’

The reason the EU has a plan to ban these vastly superior devices and limit vaping to cig-alikes is to destroy the diversity of the e-cig market to make it easier to regulate: more cigarette-like and less pipe-like. This would be a disaster. Vaping belongs to an evolutionary category of innovation (see Matt Ridley’s new book, The Evolution of Everything) where variation and bottom-up selection create a solution which intentional design could never have achieved.

Had the e-cigarette been invented and patented by a pharmaceutical company and promoted by the government, it would have failed. Big Pharma would have called the device Niquo-Stop453, made it from plastic, packaged it in boring green and white and sold it in chemists’ shops. No bureaucrat or corporate lackey would have thought ‘What if we call it Unicorn Puke and sell it like a high-end electrical product?’ To smokers, switching to Niquo-Stop453 would have felt like a sad compromise: like being treated for a disease. Switching to Unicorn Puke feels like a choice.

There are many categories where enjoyment depends on variety. If Europe wants to rationalise our vaping industry, we should demand the same consistency of them. Rather than all those stupid varieties of wine, they should just stick to two variants — red and white; and instead of all those redundant cheese varieties they should stick to making Cheddar.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Very true.

    And who needs this abundance of automobiles. Let’s “regulate” them. A “Volkswagen Bug” type of car should be enough.

  • Angel Tibbs

    Well said, sir. I salute you.

  • gram64

    I’ll check that shop out. Sounds interesting. I’m a pipe smoker.

  • Tony Whaling

    The range of e-luidids now available is now superb. That combined with the innovation in devices has developed an high quality product that still has character

    Last weekend I spent some time with some eliquid makers. It was great, sampling outstanding flavours made by people who are passionat about what they are doing. None of them know if they will have a business after the EU TPD article 20 regualtion is introduced in May 2016.

    The legislation only aim appears to be to hand the industry over to the large Tobacco companies. Protect cigerette and the NRT markets whilst supplying the comsumer with bland over priced products.

  • peterthepainter

    I don’t smoke. Did for some 40 years, gave up about 7 years ago.
    I don’t like vaping or the way vapers carry on in non-smoking areas.
    What I like far less, however, is the EU acting like a dictator.
    People must be allowed to make choices. Some may make a poor choice but that is up to them.
    Being appointed (not even elected) to the EU Commission does not suddenly confer God-like powers or Solomon-esque wisdom. In fact it usually marks one out as a failed politician from a de-selected party.
    Let people vape using some pipe-like contraption if that is their wish.
    The sooner we get out of the blasted EU the better, too.

    • WFC

      I don’t like … the way vapers carry on in non-smoking areas.

      What don’t you like about it?

      • peterthepainter

        Nobody knows what is in, or emitted by, unregulated vapes.


        There are plenty of other places, too, with opinions.

        There is also the attitude aspect. If you know smoking is banned in an area, say a bus, why assume that vaping is acceptable? Is it not just sticking two fingers up to your fellow passengers?

        If somebody has got as far as stopping smoking real cigarettes, why mess about with a fruit flavoured electronic toy that is just making someone else very rich?

        Put off having that first puff of the day. Then, continue putting it off. It really isn’t that hard.

        • WFC

          Water is what is emitted by vapes. Which is considerably less toxic than what is emitted by “unregulated” breathing-out.

          And why wouldn’t you assume that vaping is acceptable. It is no more “smoking” than would chewing nicotine gum be “smoking”. Or do you believe that that too should be encompassed by a “no smoking” sign – or that somebody with a nicotine patch is “sticking two fingers up” at fellow passengers?

          If somebody has got as far as stopping smoking real cigarettes, why mess about with a fruit flavoured electronic toy that is just making someone else very rich?

          Why not?

          Put off having that first puff of the day. Then, continue putting it off. It really isn’t that hard.

          If that’s what you prefer, fine. But don’t impose your choice on everybody else.

          • peterthepainter

            Who is imposing on whom?
            You obviously didn’t read the article I linked in.
            You have no idea what is emitted…….nobody does; it has not been fully tested. Why not? They are not regulated. The manufacturers have no interest in such tests.
            Amazing that people are happy to inhale any old junk on the sayso of a salesman in a shop dedicated to making money from vape sales.

            You are, of course, entitled to do as you please. I will happily support your rights. All that is asked in return is that you give similar consideration to others.

          • WFC

            I did read the article. I’m sorry but “no idea” really doesn’t cut it for me as a scare story.

            That is the language of superstition and irrationality, not of the enlightenment.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    “Vaping” is not interesting or stylish: the shops lack any flavour of the apothecary or the traditional tobacconist, and on the rare occasions I see customers in our local one, they are not the sort of folk I want even to share the pavement with, let alone a pub or restaurant. Tobacco smoke might be unpleasant, but these nicotine-inhalation devices are creepy – and they attract creeps.

  • Tom M

    “…..All the old pipe-smoker behaviours are re-emerging….”
    I remember well the posed awkward question. The studious look from the pipe smoker and the ritual of cleaning, poking and filling the pipe while we all wait patiently for him to formulate an answer.

  • Thomas

    I’d rather just see pipe smoking make a comeback to be honest. I do appreciate it is a bit like a quasi-pipe resurgence. But i think anti-tobacco and smoking is far too strong and will get its way.

  • AdrianM

    You should know Rory, your tobacco-pipe smoking used to really annoy me at O&M (just teasing).