India’s vape crusaders
Billed as a healthier alternative to smoking, the e-cigarette is at the centre of a small but rapidly growing subculture in the country. But now the Union health ministry wants to ban it
What sort of tricks do you want to see? I can do smoke rings, the tornado, the waterfall." Without waiting for an answer, Jay Upadhyay runs to switch off the living room fan in his namesake and fellow vaper Jay Kapadia’s flat in Mulund, Mumbai. As the blades spin to a stop, the 29-year-old commercial pilot takes a deep drag from his Think Vape DNA 250 “mod"—a battery-powered electronic cigarette (commonly called vape). Forming his lips into an oval, he cocks his head and exhales, pushing out a series of O-shaped rings of vapour. Before long, an evanescent cloud of vapour forms, carrying with it the unexpected smell of a lemon-flavoured dessert.
E-cigarettes first became popular in the late 2000s as a utilitarian smoking cessation aid. Today, they are the nucleus of a thriving global subculture that combines elements of DIY hobbyism, steam-punk aesthetics and libertarian activism, with an evangelical zeal for converting smokers into vapers. Euromonitor estimates that there are over 40 million vapers in the world, and the industry is valued at over $22.6 billion (around ₹ 1.6 trillion).The most prominent vapers are social media celebrities with massive online fan bases, clocking hundreds of millions of views on videos that range from product reviews and tutorials to anti-regulation diatribes. The subculture has even spawned its own competitive sports. At the bigger vape expositions and conventions, professional “cloud chasers"—who do exactly this—and trick vapers compete for thousands of dollars in prize money.
Upadhyay is no pro, but he’s quite happy to show off his tricking skills to a new audience. As an encore, he performs the French inhale, also known as the Irish waterfall. This trick involves exhaling the vapour slowly out of the mouth and inhaling it through the nose, creating the illusion of a reverse waterfall. “You keep telling me that I’m wasting my time with tricking," he chuckles, nodding at Kapadia. “See, now it’s coming in handy."
Both Upadhyay and Kapadia are part of India’s tiny but rapidly growing vaping scene, with over 260,000 vapers in the country, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2017. They are served by a small home-grown vaping industry consisting of independent vendors and nicotine liquid makers. But in India, as in many countries across the globe, this emerging subculture and industry is facing a potentially insurmountable roadblock. With the science around the benefits and potential health risks of e-cigarettes still highly contested, regulators and health authorities around the world are struggling to respond to the rise of vaping. Some, including regulators in the US and EU, have chosen to go with tighter regulations that treat e-cigarettes like tobacco products. Other countries, such as Argentina, Thailand and the UAE, have chosen to ban them altogether.
In India, apart from a handful of state bans, vaping had remained in a legal grey zone. That changed on 28 August, when the Union health ministry issued an advisory asking all states and Union territories to “prevent" the manufacture, sale, import and advertisement of e-cigarettes, warning that their use poses “a great health risk". As vapers all over the country organize in an effort to challenge the impending crackdown, the fledgeling Indian vaping industry now finds itself on a collision course with the government.
“I was so addicted that I would wake up my cigarette-wallah at 4 in the morning to open up his shop because I needed cigarettes," says Kapadia, the 52-year-old vape evangelist and founder of Mystic Plumes, one of India’s first indigenous makers of e-liquid. Spread out on the desk in front of him are five vapes, ranging from bulky box mods to a sleek platinum device that looks like a futuristic USB stick. He punctuates his sentences with deep drags off a vape, switching between the devices on a whim. Each has a tank filled with a different e-liquid flavour, all his own concoctions.
For 35 years, Kapadia was the stereotypical chain smoker, going through four packs a day. He made many attempts to quit, trying everything from nicotine gum and patches to medication and hypnotherapy (“been there, done that, got the T-shirt," he says). But each time, he was back to smoking within days. The longest he went without a cigarette was a fortnight, but eight of those days were spent in the hospital getting blood transfusions due to a critical case of dengue.
In 2012, his wife—an ophthalmic surgeon—prodded him to try out this new device that simulated the cigarette experience without any of the tar or carcinogenic by-products of combustion. After doing some online research, Kapadia decided to give it a shot, asking a friend abroad to bring two EGO CE4s—a basic, pen-shaped vape device—on his next trip back home. The devices cost ₹ 7,500, a prohibitive price for an experiment he was convinced wouldn’t work. “But I had a few puffs, felt the nicotine hit, I could see the vapour coming out of my mouth," he remembers. “I closed my eyes and said, ‘this is it’".
He says he hasn’t smoked a cigarette since. Soon, Kapadia had convinced 20-odd friends into jumping on the vape bandwagon. Around the same time, he also stumbled upon online Indian vape groups, including the popular Great Vaping Community of India Facebook group, where he came into contact with other early adopters and vape evangelists. These online spaces served as essential repositories of vaping knowledge and advice, especially in the early days when the technology was still nascent and had a steep learning curve.
In 2015, Kapadia set up the Mumbai Vapers’ Club and started organizing vape meets as an offline extension of this online vape community. The first vape meet was attended by just him and a friend, taking photographs of themselves as they vaped away at a bar. But it didn’t take long for the concept to take off and get picked up by fellow vapers in other cities. A typical vape meet today features 20-30 “diehard" vapers coming together at an open-air bar or restaurant, blowing thick clouds of vapour as they sample each other’s e-liquid flavours and talk about the latest technological developments in the global vaping industry. It’s where new friendships are formed, newcomers are welcomed and initiated into the community, and independent entrepreneurs driving the growth of the vaping scene connect with each other.
In the same year, Kapadia made the shift from vape enthusiast to vape entrepreneur. Finding it difficult to get e-liquids for himself and his friends—their orders would often get held up at customs—he went online and figured out how to make his own in a small home laboratory. “It started as a DIY project, I invested in getting the right equipment and I’d make liquids for my small circle of vapers," he says. “But then the numbers kept growing and ultimately it made sense to go commercial."
Most of Kapadia’s time now goes into running Mystic Plumes, which has expanded into a business that now employs six people. Over the years, he claims to have “converted" over 3,000 smokers into vapers. He’s well known in the vaping community for going out of his way to help those looking to kick the butt, spending hours explaining the intricacies of the technology and giving advice on everything from devices to the optimal nicotine concentration in e-liquids. It’s a model that many of his fellow vape entrepreneurs—such as the Dampf Company chain of retail vape stores in New Delhi and Bengaluru-based Electronic Cigarette India—also follow. “It feels good because a lease on life has been given to somebody," he says. “Your quality of life improves so much once you quit smoking. When I eat, the food tastes better. When I’m out in the open, I can take a huge lungful of air and feel alive. I want to share that feeling with others. It’s ironic that I have to fight my own government to be able to do that."
Under a cloud
“It all comes down to whether you are looking at it as harm reduction or as a moral issue," says Samrat Chowdhery, director of pro-vaping lobby Association of Vapers India (AVI), over a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in Andheri, Mumbai. Soft-spoken and almost professorial in his demeanour, Chowdhery is a journalist-turned-content specialist who became involved in vape advocacy in the wake of Karnataka’s e-cigarette ban in 2016. As other states, including Punjab, Bihar, Mizoram, Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala, followed suit, he found himself spending more and more time in the labyrinthine world of tobacco control organizations and anti-tobacco lobbying.
Chowdhery believes that the war on tobacco has become a moral crusade rather than a pragmatic effort, to the detriment of the very people it’s supposed to be helping. “We talk about harm reduction in every aspect of life, even the government does," he says, adding that the industry welcomes reasonable restrictions on e-cigarettes. “Condoms are harm reduction—we’re not telling people to not have sex, we’re giving them a safer way of doing it. But when it comes to tobacco, the concept of harm reduction goes out the window. It’s just about morality. In short, the government is saying quit or die."
Nobody claims that e-cigarettes are entirely safe. But comprehensive studies by Public Health England and the US-based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that they are definitely safer than cigarettes. Up to 95% safer, in fact, according to a 2016 report by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians, which recommended e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid. But all these studies caution that long-term effects of e-cigarettes are not yet known. And the waters are further muddied by smaller independent studies that claim vaping can lead to a number of diseases. The issue is far from settled.
In India too, the medical community is divided on whether e-cigarettes should be allowed. Mumbai-based onco-surgeon and noted anti-tobacco activist Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi is one of the most vocal proponents of a vaping ban. He told an environmental magazine last month that “much against the common perception, e-cigarettes used to serve as gateway to cigarette smoking".
But not everyone agrees. “In the medical field, there is always data for and against anything but you have to weigh the pros and cons," says Mumbai-based cardiometabolic specialist Dr Rohan Sequeira, who also teaches medicine at Mumbai’s Grant Medical College. “And in the case of vaping, there’s no substantial evidence that vaping is so harmful."
AVI has filed a legal challenge to the state ban in Karnataka, as well as an intervention against a vaping-related public interest litigation in the Delhi high court. They’re also gearing up to challenge the new Union health ministry advisory. Chowdhery, Kapadia and others in the Indian vaping community know they are looking at a long legal battle, with months or years of uncertainty staring them in the face. But they remain defiant. “Even if the bans continue, there will be 10 times as many vapers in the country in 10 years," said Chowdhery when we spoke for GQ interview this March . “It might slow the process of adoption, but it won’t end vaping, because it’s not that someone is luring people into vaping. Smokers are driven to vaping, and that won’t change. What will happen though is that it will be driven further underground, and there will be no quality control or safety standards on the products. So you’re just putting people more at risk."
The insider’s guide to vape slang
A more advanced e-cigarette that is made of separable components, allowing for a greater degree of customization and modification.
E-liquid is a blend of vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, flavour compounds and nicotine that is turned into vapour by the e-cigarette.
Vaper slang for conventional tobacco cigarettes.
Mouth-to-lung refers to the traditional way of inhaling smoke. With MTL e-cigarettes, the vapour is first inhaled into the mouth, then into the lungs, providing more flavour.
In direct-to-lung vaping, the vapour bypasses the mouth and is channelled through the throat, directly to the lungs. It is similar to using a hookah.