Listen to the story:
Five years ago, when I was a high school student, I walked to school from 7-Eleven with two classmates — Trevor Savage and Colin DeGagné. I was anxious about the presentation I had to do after lunch. I was going to pitch my semester-long project, but I had only started brainstorming ideas that morning.
During the walk, Colin pulled a vape shaped like a police badge out of his pocket. I can’t remember why I wanted to try it, but the vape found its way into my hand.
“It’s burnt,” said Colin. I didn’t know what he meant until I inhaled what tasted like thick, burnt paper. The taste, which was caused by burnt cotton in the vape, didn’t matter. The nicotine was already in my body. I had my first buzz from vaping.
Less than a month later, I had my own vape. It was an X-Priv, a vape kit that I used to vape e-liquid (juice) with 50 mg of nicotine.
At the time, I didn’t realize how many factors led to me hitting Colin’s vape that day. Now, years later, I have a nicotine addiction and no clue what to do.
Nicotine concentration, measured in grams, is what gives the buzz. “50 nic, like a nicotine content that high, 5 per cent, should never have existed in the first place,” said Colin when I talked to him recently.
It’s hard to explain how much nicotine 5 per cent truly is, but I can tell you how it felt. When I used it, it felt like my entire throat was tightening. I never saw anyone use my vape back then without going into a coughing fit — except me. I was hooked. I’d burn through a bottle of this juice in just under a week, every week.
I eventually found a brand I liked called MadMan. Their flavours were more powerful than most brands. MadMan had high levels of nicotine, making it easy to experience that buzz again, even when my tolerance increased.
The Cigarette Killer
In 2003, a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik invented the modern e-cigarette. He wanted to create a tool that made it easier to quit smoking. Its purpose was to simulate smoking with no smoke. Unlike other cessation methods, vaping has the spike of nicotine, the inhaling, and was reminiscent of the cool way actors hold cigarettes in movies.
When you smoke a cigarette, you burn the nicotine and tar, creating over 4,000 chemicals you inhale. When you vape, there’s no combustion. Instead, you heat a coil that is wrapped in cotton soaked in juice. When it gets hot enough, the juice evaporates and releases a vapour.
This difference means vaping is less harmful than smoking, in terms of physical health — but this doesn’t mean vaping is safe.
• • •
About a year after I started vaping, the buzz started to fade. Then I stopped feeling anything from vaping. The buzz was replaced with cravings.
By the time the cravings came, it was too late. I tried to quit — I must be on my seventh or eighth attempt while writing this — but it has never lasted very long.
My first attempt to quit was in my senior year of high school. My friend Anna took my vape from me and demanded I quit.
Two days later, I bought a new one.
Enjoy Your Smoking!
Tobacco companies have been manipulating public opinion on cigarettes for as long as advertising has been around. Lucky Strike leveraged the fact that their cigarettes were toasted to rekindle consumer trust. Every other cigarette was too, but that didn’t matter.
From new positioning like being healthier to a cartoon camel selling cigarettes to kids, old tobacco ads were devious and manipulative. But over time, we started to be more skeptical of cigarettes.
“It was already a fringe thing when I was in high school, but by the time I was teaching high school, there were very few smokers, and there was a connotation attached to it,” said Patrick Hansen, my old high school teacher.
• • •
In 2018, as vaping was on the rise in my school, JUUL became the biggest name in the game. It was the most popular pod system — a type of vape with prefilled cartridges of juice — and one of the most popular vapes overall. Before JUUL, most vapes were clunky and mostly used by ‘enthusiasts.’ JUUL’s pods made it easier to use, so vaping became easier to get into.
I remember seeing RDAs — a vape that you needed to drip juice onto every 4-5 puffs — used by influencers to blow massive clouds and do vape tricks.
“I think it was literally just like, ‘this looks cool. These guys are blowing crazy clouds.’ It was still like a nicotine bad, rebellious thing,” said Colin.
Once JUUL entered the scene, things changed fast. Vaping wasn’t niche anymore.
JUULs were small, sleek, and concealable. They didn’t make big clouds like an RDA. The vapour they produced was minuscule, sometimes so invisible that you could sneak a quick hit in during class.
“The problem is that it’s invisible until it isn’t. We have this issue where we know students are vaping in places they shouldn’t be, but it’s also hard to pin down because it’s easily concealable,” said Patrick.
JUUL was one of the first in the industry to use social media platforms like Instagram to advertise its product. While social media isn’t exclusive to youth, a Pew Research study shows that 97 per cent of teens in the U.S. use the internet daily, with 62 per cent using Instagram.
Using social media, JUUL connected their product and carefree living. Bright colours, relaxing views, and smiling people populated their social media accounts and, in turn, teenagers’ feeds worldwide.
“While the models were young adults, in many of the advertisements, their activity was more typical of teenagers,” is part of the observation in the “Vaporised” collection on the Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising website.
Currently, there isn’t much substantive evidence to suggest that more youth are smoking cigarettes because of vaping, but you have to wonder if youth who weren’t going to smoke have started vaping. This is almost certainly the case.
It’s also important to consider who’s profiting from vaping. JUUL is owned by Altria, the same massive tobacco company that owns Malboro. It’s also the same massive company that reported $25 billion in net revenues from marketing and producing cigarettes.
Just like their stories about reducing the harm of smoking, their aim to stop cigarettes has to be approached with suspicion. When smoking fell in popularity, one of the biggest cigarette manufacturers created one of the biggest vape brands. A vape brand that almost immediately got into trouble for marketing to teens on social media.
In September 2019, the FDA sent a warning letter to JUUL, and in 2022, they issued marketing denial orders for all JUUL products. JUUL had to stop claiming to be safer than cigarettes. This was a message to the newly booming industry: Don’t market nicotine to teens.
In 2019, when I was still vaping from a device bigger and heavier than my phone, vape juice was hard to come by. There were stores you could buy it from, but you needed an ID that said you were at least 18. At 16, I didn’t have one.
I started using my lunch money to buy juice from a friend who bought it from someone who made it in a bathtub. This was my introduction to the black market of vaping.
A year later, I first heard the term ‘popcorn lung.’ One of my classmates mentioned that any buttery juice flavours would come with a hospital trip and bronchiolitis obliterans.
Inhaling diacetyl would cause the smallest airways in your lungs to inflame and cause popcorn lung. Unfortunately, diacetyl was an extremely common flavouring for buttery flavours, especially in sketchy black market juice brands.
It didn’t take long until the talk of popcorn lung went away though. There was a new crisis in the vaping world. Teens were in hospital beds and sharing their stories on social media. Vaping, the teenager’s favourite new in-between class activity, was the next big thing in hospitalization. Why? Because of vaping-associated lung illness (VALI).
It didn’t matter who you were. You could be the school’s quarterback and still experience lung collapse. This was new. Until this point, only adults warned us about vaping and smoking. For the first time, teenagers were sending the message. It didn’t stop me, though. After all, it wasn’t true until it happened to you.
The teens ending up in the hospital vaped, yes. But they weren’t vaping juice from a store. “The US outbreak[…] suggests a possible link to vitamin E acetate, which was used[…] in unregulated vaping products,” said the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Vitamin E acetate was found in the juice used by many VALI patients. The teens in the hospital with collapsed lungs said their injuries were caused by vaping. “It’s because the insurance system in the United States wouldn’t allow a claim if they said that they were using an illicit substance,” said Louise Ross, Vice Chair of the New Nicotine Alliance, in a documentary about vaping.
Like most things in the news, the vaping discussion eventually dwindled. Vape kits were used less and less because people moved on to smaller, pod-centric vapes.
You could still buy a JUUL, but it was hard to get pods, so most high schoolers stuck to refillable pods. The Nord and the STLTH became popular in my high school. The small clouds they made meant we could still vape in the school bathrooms — something high schools are still struggling with. But I kept my archaic box mod and graduated high school, which meant I had even more time and freedom to vape.
My college courses were online, so I just had to turn my camera off, and I was free to fill my room with vapour. My vape became like an extension of my arm.
In 2021, Health Canada found that youth in Canada aged 16-19 vaped because of flavour and nicotine. The research showed that flavours were a big selling point for youth. Flavour and nicotine levels would influence product perception and usage behaviour. The study, while insightful, doesn’t single-handedly help us convince teens not to vape.
“All of us kids at the time were like, ‘no, you’re just some old geezer. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But like, what adult wants strawberry banana mango ice, fuckin’ highest possible nicotine content,” said Colin.
The 50 Ban
The sale and production of Vape juice containing 50 mg of nicotine was banned across Canada on July 23, 2021. When I found out, I felt like a character in a movie finding out there was a death in the family. If there were a camera recording my life, it would have been circling me and slightly out of kilter.
I’d been vaping for three years and had tried quitting a handful of times, but this was the first time I realized I had a problem. I was addicted.
“If they ban 50, I’m quitting,” I remember telling my friends. “I don’t even get headrocked anymore.” Headrock was the word we used to describe the buzz nicotine gave us. They banned vape juice with 50 mg, and 20 mg became the legal limit for nicotine in juice in Canada. I didn’t quit.
For a week after my stockpile ran out, my thoughts were cloudy, the cravings were unbearable, and I was constantly irritated. I couldn’t take it anymore. I started vaping juice with 20 mg of nicotine. It wasn’t the same, but it was something.
I’ve tried quitting four times since the 50 ban. In my five years of vaping, every vaper I knew tried quitting several times.
“Vaping or smoking every day consistently lasted from when I was 13 until I was 20, so that’s seven years of doing that. I just recently realized, you know what, vaping isn’t really worth it,” said Colin.
On November 8, 2022, Colin quit cold turkey. He’s the only person I heard of who managed to quit for longer than a few weeks.
Recently, disposable vapes have started to gain traction. They’re like an evolution of the JUUL, concealable and small, but now even easier to use. Disposable vapes don’t even have tanks; they have big pieces of cotton soaked in juice. They’re meant to be purchased, used, and thrown out.
“It used to be everything was devices. We don’t really carry that many anymore. We’re mainly a disposable and pre-filled pods company,” said Trevor, my classmate from the beginning of the story and now an employee at Fat Panda, one of the biggest vape stores in Manitoba. “Fat Panda is everyone’s go-to vape shop, and most people’s go-to stuff is the easy stuff.”
Disposable vapes have done an incredible job at further simplifying vaping. However, they’ve made vaping more wasteful, expensive, and addictive.
DashVapes, a massive online vape store in Canada, makes a big statement on its website. If you search for their disposable vapes page, you’re greeted by an explanation as to why they don’t sell disposable vapes.
This massive online retailer refuses to sell a product fundamentally against Hon Lik’s original goal for vaping — to help quit nicotine.
A bottle of juice, which costs about $25, has 30mL of juice. Disposable vapes have varying amounts of juice but always cost more for less juice. Disposable vapes may save you the upfront cost of buying a device, but over time, they become like a burning pit of money, every trip to the vape shop adding more to the flame.
Throughout the story, you’ve seen the disposable vapes I hoarded over a three-month period. I bought five bottles in the same amount of time. Not only did I buy significantly less, but I also lowered the nicotine in the juice over time.
Buying your own juice separate from your device allows you to choose the nicotine levels you inhale. Common amounts (in milligrams) are 0, 3, 6, 12, and 20. I’ve yet to see a disposable that’s filled with less than 18 or 20 mg. If they exist, I haven’t come across them in Winnipeg.
This makes it substantially harder to quit. Nicotine is the main addictive ingredient in juice. Lowering your nicotine intake gradually — from 20 to 12, to 6, and then stopping entirely — can make it easier to curb your addiction.
Locking you in at 20 mg makes the cravings of quitting much worse.
What Do We Do?
Adverse effects keep popping up in the world of vaping. When Hon Lik first designed the vape, it was meant to make quitting nicotine easier. Disposables counteracted any progress vaping made in that regard.
The Canadian Government’s plan for regulating vaping in Canada has many pieces, and some have already been implemented. Manitoba, in particular, has successfully implemented the 50nic ban, the juice tax, and regulations on advertising. It’s also notable that there isn’t evidence of nicotine regulation leading to a smoking increase.
Another suggestion in the “At-a-glance: Provincial restrictions on vaping products” is a crackdown on vape flavours. The federal government already intends to ban juice that isn’t tobacco or menthol/mint flavoured.
This is worrying.
For the most part, people aren’t addicted to vaping. They’re addicted to nicotine. Vaping has multiple advantages over smoking, but one of the biggest is that it tastes like strawberries.
So, in a future without flavours, vapers are left with three choices: quit, stick with cigarette-flavoured vapes, or turn to the black market.
“When I was in high school, there was this guy making juice [called] Beyond Space. All the high school kids were using it,” said Trevor. “He bought vegetable glycerin, and he bought food flavouring. People like that are making shit that’s killing people.”
We can’t forget about people who don’t smoke or vape. While vaping needs to be attractive enough to entice smokers, there’s a risk of marketing the products, even accidentally, to people who have never smoked or vaped.
There needs to be a middle ground.
Vaping is here. We can’t put it back in the box. Sweeping bans will likely increase unregulated and dangerous products targeting vulnerable people. Meanwhile, making vaping too accessible and attractive will encourage non-vapers to start vaping. Demonizing vaping will discourage the jump from smoking to vaping.
So what do we do?
The hesitance shown by the government in implementing some regulations, like the flavour ban, suggests they won’t rush regulations out the door. It seems the government understands their decisions won’t only affect the law of vaping but also the public’s perception of an important device for smoking cessation.
What we do with this issue won’t be simple. Doing nothing is not an option, but choosing the right approach is tricky. Vaping can help us end smoking, but it’s a tool that can’t be unthoughtfully wielded. Otherwise, we’ll continue introducing non-smoking teens to vaping.