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We've Come a Long Way, Baby

Photograph of a man inhaling an electronic cigarette, by Ary6
  • By Gemma Sieff
  • Issue 8
  • Essential

Vaping, the interminable inhalation of an electronic cigarette, is not—can never be—cool. It tries too hard. Billing itself as tobacco’s clean-living cousin, no longer banished to shiver defiantly on the front step, desperate to rejoin polite society, it clamors for attention. Not just from early adopters—one more piece of gadgetry blinking at you and demanding to be charged—but from the Oxford English Dictionary, whose editors named it 2014’s word of the year. #WOTY2014, I kid you not. As I was not a cool kid, I can spot an overeager beaver ten miles from the dam.

I was the kid too scared to smoke because the heat hurt my throat and my dad is a doctor. I took it up late in my twenties because I’m a dummy. It stank. The whiff of insurgency was a big part of its minimal charm. Old-fashioned cigarettes kindle fellow-feeling as ephemeral as ash or, if you’re sharing one guiltily with a friend, spark gossip about what’s going on upstairs. If they are an indiscreet interruption they are at least discrete—an act with a beginning and an end, the snick and the extinguished ember.

Vapes are babyish. As with a pacifier, you can suck on one for hours. Its store of nicotine is replenished by drip-feed from a baby bottle of sticky goo that gets on your hands and stains bedclothes and bib. It creates a feathery vapor with an odor that is fairly inoffensive, but the flavors—redolent of wine coolers, confetti breakfast cereal, orange Julii, and other too-sweet treats you no longer ingest on the regular—undermine any hope of sophistication. (I’m partial to cronut, for which I’ve been roundly and rightly mocked. The cronut, in case you haven’t heard, is a croissant mashed into a doughnut, and the exhaust smells like French toast.) The Platonic hierarchy of pleasures tracks neatly with the evolution of the palate. Cotton candy naturally yields to dark chocolate, olives, offal, and cigars. Vaping is the snacking of smoking, going on and on and tasting fun. Infantile innovation is in keeping with other technological trends: Uber silencing the fascist art of hailing a taxi, Seamless ringing the doorbell with a cornucopia of options, gray hoodies and black turtlenecks collected, laundered, and delivered to demystify getting dressed—non-confrontational conveniences that shift and conceal basic labor, outsourcing that sows urban invalidism.

Cigarettes had elegant accessories—the long holder, the silver lighter, wafer-thin rolling papers, a pouch of richly scented Dutch tobacco—and elegant gestures, like lighting another’s before your own. The throaty laughter of silver-screen dames, the postcoital indulgences of the Nouvelle Vague, the Zippos of brave handsome American GIs—grown-up stuff. It’s difficult to imagine Hollywood asking any leading man to break out an e-cigarette unless he’s the butt of a joke.

Gemma Sieff is a writer and editor living in New York City.

Photo by Ary6