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Vaping in the old tobacco and new marijuana industries

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on the growth of electronic cigarettes and the vaping phenomenon.

Vape is a fascinating Word of the Year. Not only is the word new and important, but so is the actual activity. That’s different from merely coining a cute new label for a longstanding practice.

First, some clarification. Various drugs can be “smoked” or “vaporized”. Smoking involves combustion, as in “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” By contrast, when something is vaporized it is heated – using heat from an external source – to volatilize the molecules. Water vapor is the familiar example; steam is not produced by burning water.

The distinction matters for many drugs. Burning cocaine decomposes it into byproducts that are not psychoactive. Vaporized cocaine base is crack.

Burning tobacco releases smoke that is full of not only nicotine but also carcinogens. The nicotine is addictive but not carcinogenic. E-cigarettes provide the nicotine – and nicotine addiction – without those tars or hot gasses. (Nicotine evaporates at a much lower temperature than is created when tobacco burns.)

It’s not that e-cigarettes are healthy. Constant dosing with nicotine is bad for your heart. However, compared to the most deadly consumer product in history, e-cigarettes aren’t as bad. When I polled a number of medical colleagues, their best guesses – and they stressed at this point they are only guesses – were that all things considered, e-cigarettes will kill at something like one-tenth the rate per year of use as do conventional cigarettes. That could make e-cigarettes a life saver – unless they become a new gateway to nicotine addiction for adolescents who later convert to combusted tobacco products.

With marijuana, people traditionally mostly smoked the flowering tops (“buds”) of the cannabis plant in a joint (cigarette) or bong (water pipe). However, the recent liberalization of marijuana policy has made consumption of THC “extracts” more common. (You can also vape buds, but the trend is toward concentrates.)

Vaping is a boon to both the old tobacco and the new marijuana industries because it solves their fundamental problem: how to ensure long-term demand when these days almost no mature adult initiates use of a new dependence-inducing psychoactive. The vast majority of people who smoke tobacco or marijuana start before the age of 21; indeed, usually by age 16. Kids know cigarettes are deadly, and have lagged in the recent upsurge in marijuana use.

Electronic Cigarette by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.
Electronic Cigarette by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.

Cue the cavalry to the rescue in the form of all these fruit flavors, such as bubble gum, caramel candy, root beer, and mango, that appeal to kids. Originally tobacco companies were indifferent to e-cigarettes. Originally they were used mostly by established smokers, and it wasn’t clear whether they were more of an aid for those quitting (akin to nicotine gum) or a way to retain smokers by making hours spent in smoke-free restaurants and workplaces more tolerable.

The marijuana industry was not similarly conflicted because much of the THC in a cannabis plant is locked up in leaves and other parts that are not desirable in today’s market as “usable marijuana”. It has always been technically possible to extract that THC, but doing so efficiently requires a moderately large extraction machine – something whose presence used to be difficult to explain to the police or nosy neighbors. But once producing marijuana products became legal (albeit still only under state law), there were no qualms about owning an extraction machine and recovering all that additional THC.

Cheap THC extraction created a new problem: how to sell it to a marketplace that was focused on joints and bongs. A certain amount could be baked into brownies, mixed into beverages or ointments, or sold as dabs to hardcore users, but the killer app was vape pens. Vape pens are close to odorless, letting kids use at home without their parents knowing; they are easy to flavor; and they create an element of style. The same creativity that went into filling head shops with endless variations on the basic bong has been channeled into vape pens with features such as puff counters, batteries that plug into USB ports, and LED temperature indicators, as well as styling features ranging from classy gold plate to ninja turtle figurines and Snoop Dog endorsements.

The word vape itself is also key to this transformation. The scary word cigarette is part of the phrase e-cigarette, but vaping is new, chic, and as-of-yet decoupled from associations with cancer and heart disease.

All of this has made vaping trendy in a way it hadn’t been when e-cigarettes first hit the market, and now the big tobacco companies are jumping in with both feet, buying up small e-cigarette companies and putting their marketing muscle behind the trend. They smell opportunity; whereas it is illegal to flavor tobacco, there is no barrier to marketing kid-friendly fruit-flavored nicotine for e-cigarettes.

What remains to be seen is how the industry will evolve if and when marijuana is legalized nationwide. Will tobacco companies buy out the still small marijuana firms? Will they – or the marijuana companies – sell cartridges that come with nicotine and THC premixed? Or will this vaping fad disappear like a puff of vapor?

Hard to say. But right now, vape is the Word of Year.

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