Spending Time With an Electric Cigarette

The great Mark Twain once wrote, “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” It’s the perfect summation of the eternal struggle between a smoker and his cigarette, at once a loyal friend and two-faced bastard. But an even greater struggle that smokers face is against themselves. Do they smoke because they can’t not, or because they don’t feel like stopping? Anti-smoking products — nicotine gum, patches, nasal spray — are known as Nicotine Replacement Therapy, and have had varying degrees of success. They’re designed to quench your body’s thirst for nicotine, but what they can’t replicate is the pleasure of heading out for a smoke break with your coworkers, or sparking up after a stressful job interview. The physicality of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing in and blowing out of smoke — is half of the appeal. This means that the most effective form of NRT would be a device that could satisfy a smoker’s nic-fits, while still allowing him to look as debonair as Humphrey Bogart circa 1946. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the e-cigarette.

Several weeks ago one of our interns was puffing away at what looked like a cigarette right here in the office. When he took a haul, the cherry glowed. When he exhaled, a plume of scentless smoke whisped out. He told us it was an electronic cigarette, and what he was blowing out was “nicotine vapors.” Like a child seeing their first Yo Gabba Gabba! episode, we were transfixed. Did this device — that looked and behaved just like a cigarette — feel like one too? Was this the smoking gun (pun intended) that self-hating smokers were looking for? What if you could quit smoking without really quitting smoking? We had to get our stained-yellow hands on one and find out for ourselves. So that’s exactly what we did

After the e-cigarette’s manufacturer — Green Smoke — agreed to send us a $139 Starter Kit, we did a little research and found out that these cyborg smokes weren’t exactly new to the market. The Times explored their yays (zero carcinogens! You can smoke in bars!) and nays (It’s the stuff they use in smoke machines!) back in June of last year; The Wall Street Journal wrote on the controversy surrounding them (the FDA has yet to approve). The articles both featured testaments from heavy smokers who, thanks to their e-cigarettes, were able to cut smoking out of their lives significantly, if not totally. Leave it to federal rulers and regulators to summon a dark cloud of smoke (pun intended again) over what should be a very positive thing. Detractors claim the different cartridge flavors — chocolate, strawberry, apple — make them attractive to kids. Also, although you’re mostly inhaling a vaporized version of nicotine and water, the concoction includes something called propylene glycol, a compound used in deodorant, hand sanitizers, and anti-freeze. The jury is still out on whether this is a viable alternative to quitting, or a lesser but still sketchy quick fix. For the last two weeks, there was not an hour I spent sans e-cigarette, and the experience kind of freaked me out.

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During my two-week fake-smoke rampage, I defiled Barrio Chino, Mile End, Henry Public, Butter, and a myriad of other venues that dot New York. I smoked in other people’s apartments and bathrooms, on the bus, the subway, in taxis, in bookstores, in a movie theatre, at the Rangers game, at the Knicks game, and at the gym. I was popping cherries with my cherry all over town, and it felt great.

At first, the sensation of smoking in places that haven’t seen the swirl of cigarette smoke since the days of Don Draper was odd. I expected to be chastised for so openly and blatantly defying the law. At Madison Square Garden, hundreds of people saw me exhaling what they must have assumed was about 42 carcinogens-worth of secondhand smoke. Every time I blew some out, I expected a tap on my shoulder. It never came. On a crowded bus in Brooklyn, people gave me blank stares as I essentially blew smoke in their faces. Not a word. Even at the YMCA, on a Life Cycle, smoking for what all accounts and purposes looks and acts like a cigarette, I was left alone. Weird.

But that’s not entirely true. I was bugged, but only out of curiosity. When Butter’s monolithic bouncer called me over, it was only to ask what I was smoking. I told him it was an electric cigarette, and that it’s not real smoke.

“I gotta get me one of those!” was his response.

That’s the thing: You end up meeting a lot of people thanks to this strange little device. They’re not so ubiquitous that the average person has heard of them, let alone seen them. You’ll meet more curious and confused strangers with your electric cigarette than you would if your name was Heidi Montag. In fact, it’s a perfect conversation starter for single people looking to hook up. Just make sure you’ve got a slick answer to “What are you putting in your mouth?” It shouldn’t be hard.

When people asked me what it was, which a lot of them did, I found myself explaining the device best as I could (“It’s nicotine vapors”), always making sure they knew I was doing this for work. I didn’t want them thinking I was such a slave to addiction that I resorted to what seems like a desperate gimmick. But that probably says more about me than the product.

The e-cigarette can also function as a hilarious trendsetter. While puffing on my bionic butt (futuristic fag?) during last week’s Jets game, I overheard two guys asking each other if it was okay to smoke inside. It wasn’t, and they didn’t, but you can tell it crossed their minds. And in light of the city’s recent crackdown on the smoking ban, I would’ve taken more than a little pleasure in seeing them get a scolding, while I smoked mine like a little rascal.

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Since I didn’t go anywhere my electric cigarette didn’t go (and vice versa), my friends came to know it almost as well as I did. And every time I used it — which by the end was a lot — they were sort of bewildered. If four of us were in a restaurant having dinner, I was the weird guy sucking on the metal stick. The looks on their faces every time i pulled it out was a mix of “That’s so funny!” and “Is he serious?” A few times they remarked that I’m smoking more now than I would if I was using real cigarettes. Before long, they were telling me to put it away, and I began to feel like Green Smoke had created a monster.

Toward the end of the experiment, a disturbing trend emerged. I started holding the cigarette in my mouth all the time — clenched between my teeth or hanging loosely between my lips. Eventually the cartridge — which in smokerspeak is the filter — got all gnawed up. Soon the sticker peeled off exposing a metal surface, the Terminator of smokes.

Until then, I refused to ponder this gadget’s true nature. But glimpsing its machine-like interior put thoughts into my head. It suddenly seemed more artificial than real cigarettes, themselves just some leaves wrapped in paper. I specifically avoided reading the user’s manual before starting this experiment because I wanted to go in blind, to not know exactly what I was inhaling — kind of like smoking for real. But a product that calls itself Green Smoke instantly connotes the purity of nature. A substance that calls itself propylene glycol does not (it’s the same thing that comes out of smoke machines). Electric cigarettes are without question less dangerous than real ones. They’re also scentless, and you don’t have to freeze your ass off in the winter to support an addiction that may very well kill you. But do you really want to be that guy? I don’t.

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