Hugo Rifkind

Vaping’s appeal isn’t about the nicotine. It’s about the gadgets

12 May 2016

1:00 PM

12 May 2016

1:00 PM

Probably you never visited the flats of middle-class student drug dealers in the 1990s, because crikey, neither did I, and look, let’s just move along. Even so, were there ever to be found a Platonic form of such a place, or, as the beer adverts might put it, If Heineken Did the Flats of 1990s Middle-Class Student Drug Dealers, then I now know precisely what such a place would look like. It would look like a vape shop.

To be more specific, it would look like the vape shop I visited a few weeks ago in north London. It was perfect down to the last detail. Paraphernalia all over the place. The main wallah — the dealer, I suppose — had dreadlocks and bohemian clothes, and the bearing of an alpha male, and almost no vocabulary whatsoever. Various other young men hovered nearby, for reasons uncertain, perhaps just hanging out. And in a shabby armchair by the stairs, as has been traditional in the premises of every posh drug dealer since the dawn of time, as you may even recall from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, there slumped the pièce de résistance: a pretty blonde girl, seemingly comatose, in an incredibly silly hat.

Had it really been 1996, I suppose I might have checked if she was OK. As it was, we were in a proper shop with Visa stickers on the windows, just across the road from Pizza Express, and it all felt a bit like performance art. One of the lurking boys, indeed, had just asked if she was OK, and the dealer bloke had said, ‘She’ll be fine in a minute, she just had too much.’ At which I nodded wryly, like everybody else — although secretly I didn’t understand what she could have had too much of, given that they only sold e–cigarettes and even if you go at those incredibly hard for ages you’ll merely end up with a small headache and a bit of a dry mouth.

Still, I wanted to fit in. So when the dealer gave me some new e-juice to try, I nodded like a gimp and said, ‘Mmm, yeah, mate, really nice.’ Even though it just tasted like stale coffee with a bit of Juicy Fruit in it, like all this stuff always does.

People are wrong about vaping. It’s not about the nicotine. It’s not even about the vaping. Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive should restrict the advertising of e-cigarettes, just as it does with real cigarettes. Whereas actually this fad is nothing like cigarettes, which is why going underground will do it no great harm. They know in the shops. Vaping isn’t the new fags. It’s the new drugs.

Although it’s not the drugs bit of drugs. It’s not the bit of drugs that will make you insane or a criminal or homeless and grappling with tinfoil in a disused railway tunnel, or 27 but looking 50 and on the game in a market town with no teeth. It’s not even the bit of drugs that’s supposed to be fun. It’s the other bit. The geek bit. The bit with kit.

Tarantino knows. There’s that bit in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta takes out his little sponge bag and his chrome syringe, and slowly screws one bit into another in a manner which is utterly mesmerising right up until the point where he’s sticking it into his skin to do heroin, and it’s suddenly no fun at all and you just can’t watch any more. Similarly, there is a reason why teenage pot smokers tend to be mad about pipes and bongs and rolling machines. It’s because the kit is more fun than the drugs. Half of them, I’ll bet, only take the drugs as an excuse to play with everything else.

Or if it isn’t drugs, it’s weaponry. Unscrew the long, thin battery from the whatsit, the cartomiser. Open it up, change the coil, put it back together again. Daydream enough and you could almost be Edward Fox building his sniper rifle in Day of the Jackal.

And that’s just the basics. Get more advanced and you enter a world of batteries, mods and variable voltages. Differing ohms. Yes! Ohms! For a long time, as I may have written here before, I didn’t get the point. This was because I thought it was all about the vape, the smoke. It isn’t. It’s about the stuff. It’s about the guy who sidles up you at a party, says ‘Nice rig’ and then shows you his, and you check it out, like Luke Skywalker did when Obi Wan Kenobi gave him that lightsaber.

Which is why I think it’ll last, whatever the EU bans and whether firms can advertise or not. This isn’t medicine or habit. This is more than that. This is culture.

Balance of outrage

Facebook, which is the 21st century’s answer to a social life, is being attacked for censoring its ‘trending news’ topics. According to Gizmodo, another website, staff at the social network routinely ignore news from right-wing sources in favour of sites such as the BBC. Among those shunned is Breitbart, a right-wing website for the almost insane. A spokesman for that site declared that ‘Facebook’s trending news artificially mutes conservatives and amplifies progressives.’

It’s funny. I’ve become so accustomed of late to howls from the SNP and Corbynite left deriding the BBC for being a right-wing establishment propaganda machine that I’d completely forgotten it was supposed to be ‘progressive’, too. These people should talk more.

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