“What is that thing?” I watched in confusion as Anna exhaled a thin stream of what looked like smoke into the cramped air of her bedroom. With only a few weeks left in our senior year, we had spent the afternoon trading high school reflections and speculating about the mysteries of college, now only months away. Real schoolwork and the anxieties of the application process now behind us, these last months of spring had begun to feel like a sort of limbo, a time of licensed aimlessness before the fall brought new routines. Among many of my friends, this seeming lack of obligations had bred a culture of listless—at times reckless—indulgence. Drinking on school nights, lying to break curfew: things once taboo suddenly became acceptable as other responsibilities fell away. Given the order of the past few weeks, I was more puzzled than surprised when Anna pulled a plastic cigarette from her purse and put it to her lips.
“It’s an e-cig,” she told me, sending another white puff in my direction.
“Do you want to try?”
In my palm, the device looked more like a pen than a cigarette. Though I had seen advertisements for electronic cigarettes online and in the back pages of Rolling Stone, I had never had any desire to try one. I had always been under the impression that they were a stop-smoking method, a way for longtime smokers to keep their habit while kicking its most destructive part: the carcinogen-heavy smoke. As a non-smoker, I had no more desire to buy an e-cig than a box of nicotine gum. But now, rolling the sleek black cylinder between my thumb and forefinger, I was curious. Placing the end to my lips, I inhaled a mouthful of vaguely sweet, slightly noxious chemical vapor.
“It’s cherry flavored,” she told me.
A few days after trying out Anna’s, I had bought my own, on impulse, at a convenience store. The ten-dollar disposable device resembled a cigarette even less than hers. Dark purple with a pink, jewel-like structure on the end, the e-cig looked more like a Barbie accessory than something you needed ID to purchase. In retrospect, I think I liked how little it looked like an actual cigarette. This was, in part, a matter of being inconspicuous—should a parent or sibling find it, I figured my e-cig was more likely to be taken for pen or a makeup implement than anything contraband. Yet my reasoning was also more personal. Like most American teenagers born in the mid-90s, I’d grown up surrounded by anti-smoking PSAs. Even after eighth grade anti-drinking “DARE” pledges seemed obsolete, I was still haunted by the tracheotomies and blackened lungs I’d seen on TV.
At the same time, however, a part of me was enticed by the act of smoking and the image attached to it. Coughing cowboys and cancer statistics hadn’t prevented me from contracting the same teenage malaise that has been tied, over and over again, to the figure of the adolescent smoker. Disillusioned with senior spring, I felt as bored with the bland monotony of high school as with my own straight-laced identity, and I longed for a mode of rebellion. Like many young people, I found myself drawn to the smoker’s counter-cultural coolness and the nonchalant disregard she seemed to hold for everything—even her own body.
As I struggled to reconcile the fears I’d been instilled with since childhood with smoking’s promise of alternative hipness, e-cigs seemed like a way out. Though I came to crave the nicotine buzz that my new, girly device delivered, I quelled my anxieties about this budding addiction with the fact that my e-cigarette was not a real cigarette and therefore, I figured, relatively harmless. After all, as advertisements claimed, e-cigarettes had none of the tar or toxins that made standard cigarettes so destructive.
It wasn’t until several weeks later, when I found myself splitting a Camel Blue with Anna on her back porch that I began to question just how innocuous electronic cigarettes really were. E-cigs were meant, or so companies claimed, to help people stop smoking, not start smoking. Yet the more attached I became to my e-cig, the less off-limits actual cigarettes seemed. It wasn’t simply the nicotine— the idea that, already hooked, I’d take a hit to my health for a fix. More than that, I think, my conception of myself was changing. Though it didn’t look like a cigarette, my e-cig made me feel, if only somewhat, like a smoker—and I found I liked it. So when Anna offered me a drag, my PSA education seemed to fall into the background, trumped by my desire for an identity I’d already halfway assumed.
For a while, I felt like a complete anomaly. My story was backwards: who picked up a habit by picking up the methods for quitting it? I’m not alone, though: over the past year, I’ve met several people my age who have started smoking only after trying e-cigs. While many electronic cigarette manufacturers claim to be providing smoking cessation aids, the appearance and nature of their products seem to target a different demographic. To begin with, many e-cigs hardly resemble actual cigarettes. The most dramatic example of this is Krave, the brand I’d used, whose “cigarettes”—which come in a variety of colors including pink, purple, and blue—eerily resemble toys. It is difficult to believe that an adult smoker aiming to quit would opt for a glossy pink design with a light-up gem on the end. On the other hand, these toy-like designs can be appealing to teens, especially those, like myself, who have been taught to automatically associate the color and shape of a cigarette with its health consequences.
The candy-like flavor options that many e-cigarettes come in further raise questions about manufacturers’ target consumers. Nearly every popular e-cig company boasts a wide selection of flavors: in addition to “tobacco,” Krave offers smokers an array of options including “wild cherry,” “green apple,” and “chocolate,” as though e-cigarettes were Jolly Ranchers or Blow-Pops. It is possible that these sweet choices are simply intended to conceal the chemical-heavy taste of the vapor, and to provide alternatives for older smokers who are not satisfied with what is a relatively artificial-tasting attempt at “tobacco.” Yet these kid-friendly flavors also make e-cigarettes much more appealing to young people, many of whom might be initially put off by the intense and, for many, nauseating, smell and taste of a real cigarette.
Toy-like, temptingly flavored, and relatively inconspicuous, e-cigs turn smoking into a fun, apparently risk-free activity. We pass them around at parties, showing off smoke tricks or enjoying a tar-free nicotine buzz. I’d like to question, however, just how “risk-free” e-cigs really are. While e-cigs may not have many of the toxins that cigarettes do, they are just as addictive, if not more so—many companies offer a “high nicotine” option that contains up to 150% the amount of nicotine in a standard cigarette. In addition to being problematic in and of itself, developing a nicotine dependency can make e-cig smokers more likely to enjoy smoking actual cigarettes.
Additionally, the vapor that e-cigarettes substitute for smoke may not be as safe as manufacturers make it out to be. People have long expressed concerns about the potential toxicity of the liquid nicotine solution used in e-cigarette vapor, for which there is still no definitive data. More alarmingly, a study conducted earlier this year by the National Institute of Health reported that e-cigarette vapor “promoted the development of cancer in certain types of human cells much in the same way that tobacco smoke does,” according to the New York Times. Though these findings were only preliminary, they call into question the casual attitude many people have towards what is presumed to be a “safe” way of smoking.
As surgeon’s warnings, sin taxes, and anti-smoking PSAs continue to make smoking less and less nonchalant, e-cigarettes offer an enticing alternative with none of the known health consequences of real cigarettes. Yet as is the case with most advertisers’ claims, the promise of risk-free smoking is hardly a reality. While my own “backwards” experience with e-cigs was driven as much by my own impulsivity and lack of discretion as by manufacturers’ conceits, it brought me to realize, firsthand, the potential dangers that can be concealed by a sleek, toy-like design. Pink, blue, or chocolate-flavored, e-cigarettes are as addictive as a pack of Marlboros, and potentially as damaging.