I am not a smoker — which is not to say I don’t know how to smoke. I just never got fully hooked. I’m one of the “social smokers” that the hardcore smokers have grown to hate. In my partygoing heyday, I’d go through about a pack a week, but I consciously decided to drop that to near-zero one day. These days, I smoke a few times a year. I do it at bars (though less-so, with the smoking ban and chilly patios), clubs, and parties. Sometimes it’s Camels. Sometimes it’s cloves. Sometimes it’s whatever I can bum from someone. But always, if I buy, I have to give away the rest of the box. Or not, and discover, months later, a stale pack in a jacket pocket or the back of a drawer.
Although I’m not physically addicted, specific situations (the aforementioned bars, clubs, parties) often leave me jonesing for a cigarette. Maybe its reliving happy memories. Maybe its a social crutch. Maybe it’s just getting out of the crowd and into a more quiet and intimate space. What I do know is that I’ll end up bumming several from folks, have a great time that evening, and end up paying for it with sinus and throat problems the next morning.
Given the recent rise of e-cigarettes, the FDA not banning them (though not praising them either), the corner “vape” shops popping up like mushrooms, and the increasing visibility of people using them, I thought I would investigate and share the results. Keep in mind that this is entirely my opinion and my point of view. A grizzled multi-pack-a-day smoker with a Tom Waits voice may find useful points here, but is not necessarily the target audience of this research. I am also intentionally avoiding discussing how healthy they are for you, even sans nicotine. Anecdotal and light scientific evidence points to these as better for you than real cigarettes, but the jury is still out. Long-term studies are still inconclusive. Live on the edge and use them at your own risk.
What is an e-cigarette?
If you’re not familiar with e-cigarettes, they have three main parts: a battery, an electric atomizer, and a reservoir of fluid or “juice.” The juice sits in a tank or in fibers (similar in concept to the cotton that holds the fluid in Zippo lighters). When you’re ready to smoke, the atomizer heats up a lungful of juice, which turns it to smoke.
There are many variations on this theme. The connection between battery and atomizer could be a simple pushbutton. Alternately, it could be pressure-sensitive, activating automatically when you take a breath. The form-factor could be small and white and cylindrical, looking like an actual cigarette. It might even have a red LED on the tip, giving it a cherry, making it look like its lit. It might be stealthy and black, with a blue LED. It might be bulky and silver. The atomizer — the part that heats up, converting juice to smoke — deteriorates over time. It carbonizes, blackening from burnt juice. It (or the entire cigarette, depending on how disposable it is) you must replace every couple of months.
The juice is another piece that can vary tremendously. At its base, all juice is propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin. The first is an alcoholic solvent used in pharmaceuticals (for instance, turning solids into oral, topical, or injectable medicines). The second is a sugar substitute. They’re found in lubricating eye drops (“artificial tears,” as opposed to red-eye drops). They’re also both found in the “fog juice” that you load into fog machines. In fact, there are more than superficial similarities between fog machines and e-cigarettes. The cigarettes are more portable. Beyond this base commonality, the juices can have any amount of nicotine and any amount of flavor. They can even have crazy flavors that you’d never find in a cigarette: marshmallow, birthday cake, orange, apple, coffee, bourbon, energy drink. You can even mix flavors (fruit loops = cherry + lemon + graham cracker, or so I’m told). Given the increasing number of teens that are taking up e-cigarettes, I can only guess the target audience for the candylike fruity flavors.
Since I’m not looking to wean off of nicotine, I have purchased nicotine-free fluids. This isn’t like decaffeinated coffee, where an extraction process leaves trace amounts of caffeine behind. The nicotine has to be specifically added to the juice, so they are truly nicotine-free.
I enjoy research. I like reading reviews from multiple sources and cross-referencing and correlating the observations and results. In this case, though, it was hard to find genuine quality reviews that I could trust. With many other topics — computers, consumer electronics, books, restaurants, doctors — there are a handful of trusted go-to sites that you can hit up for reviews. With e-cigarettes, none of the gadget sites had touched them. The majority of Google results looked fishy — as if they were SEO Google-bait and/or spammy fake reviews. Deeper in the page two and three results, I found a few reviews that didn’t seem scammy. Alas, I no longer have the links to share. You’ll have to do your own research on this one.
I ended up going with two products from VaporFi (formerly VaporZone). There were one or two popular and high-rated disposable e-cigarettes from another manufacturer, but I didn’t go with them. I don’t like the idea of throwing away the battery. (Yes, there are sometimes discounts with trade-ins, but that seems like an awkward workaround, at best.) The two VaporFi models I looked at were reusable aside from the atomizer, which breaks down over time due to wear and tear, anyway.
The Express is one that looks more stealthily like a conventional cigarette. The cigarette uses a breath-activated switch in the battery, rather than a pushbutton switch, to heat the fluid. The end has an LED and reflector that lights up when you take a breath, fading up quickly, then slowly fading out, like the flame of a real cigarette. Sure it’s a little gimmicky and skeuomorphic, but I kind of like it. The main body of the cigarette holds the rechargeable battery. In fact, the kit comes with two types of battery: the standard and an extra-long one that holds more power. It includes a USB dongle that you screw the battery into for charging. What would normally be the filter on a conventional cigarette is a semi-disposable module that screws into the battery and holds the fluid and atomizer. I have not had to yet, but I understand that you can fill it about five times before you have to throw it away.
This setup is convenient in that you can easily swap out flavors without having to deal with fluids and reservoirs. Just keep a few cartridges on you, in different flavors, and interchange them as needed. It’s tiny and fits in a pocket, ready at a moment’s notice. The downside is that once you’ve put a juice flavor into a cartridge, you’re stuck refilling it with that flavor. You can’t put in a different juice without mixing and tainting the flavor. Also: when filling ditch the instructions that come with them and follow VaporFi’s instructional video.
The Platinum Pro doesn’t pretend to be a real cigarette. It’s a Sonic Screwdriver with a hookah tip. It’s totally modular and uses interchangeable, replaceable parts. Want a different tank? Bigger battery? Different set of colors? Swap the pieces out. Build your own. The one expendable part, the atomizer, is easy and cheap to replace. The battery is large enough to have a mini-USB port under the endcap for charging.
The Platinum Pro is a little big and chunky, definitely not as pocketable as the Express. But the battery lasts seemingly forever. It uses a tank instead of juice-soaked fibers so you have more opportunity to sample different flavors of juice. Buy one you didn’t like? Dump it, clean out the reservoir, and try a new flavor. Be careful when you do this though, as you can end up with a sticky mess on your hands. But on the plus side, you didn’t just expend a cartridge on a horrible flavor you’ll never use again, which would be the case with the Express. Because the reservoir has a window, you can see how much remains and top it off as need be. The Express cartridges are done when they’re done. Their output tapers off toward the end, but you don’t have a ton of warning.
Having a button to activate the atomizer is kind of nice. You can hit it a second or two before you’re ready to take a drag so that it’s up to temperature when you start to use it. The breath-activated switch of the Express means that it’s not heated until you’re a few hundred milliseconds into your draw. That doesn’t sound like much, and you probably wouldn’t notice if that was your only e-cigarette, but when you put the two in contrast, it’s a little annoying.
At this point, I’m using the Pro to sample flavors. I’ll probably fall back to the Express for most situations because it’s small, convenient, and stealthy. Your needs may vary from mine. I found that both models suffer from “rolling around.” Both are cylindrical, with no flat edges or nubs. Pencils (both the hexagonal wooden and mechanical with pocket clip) solved the roll-across-the-table problem long ago. Because you’re not putting the cigarette into an ashtray, you end up placing it on the table, which, if uneven, can roll around.
I evaluated the juices by buying the small 3-pack sampler packs. The juices I tried fell into two groups: “I’m trying to be a cigarette” and “holy crap, this would be a weird flavor in an actual cigarette.” My results were just as polarized.
But first, let’s talk about tofu. I like tofu. Whether it’s firm tofu or silky tofu, or even a textured vegetable protein in the right situation. Marinate it, cook it, do something interesting and cool with it. Tofu that tries really hard to be a meat, though? Fake chicken? Fake beef? Not so much. Embrace your strengths and weaknesses; don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Pretend meats are bad.
So back to the juices… I feel that the juices that really try to be an actual cigarette probably have a flavor element in the nicotine that just isn’t reproduced in the zero-nicotine version, much like meat vs. tofu. More than anything, I tasted the sweet flavor of the polyethylene glycol, with hints of something else in there. But they were just too sweet and wrong to me. The flavors I sampled were:
If I know you and you’re in Portland and want to take the remainder off my hands, let me know. I’m never going to use them.
On to the other flavors:
I felt the Clove flavor was missing flavor profiles that the tobacco flavors were also missing. It was clove, that’s for sure. It tasted like the clove (or was it nutmeg?) challenge, where someone dares/bribes you to eat a teaspoon of ground clove. (Okay, I never did that—maybe it’s an urban legend?) It honestly did taste strongly of clove; it just didn’t taste like clove cigarette. It was interesting, but I’m unsure if I will continue with this flavor.
I undoubtedly like the Menthol Ice. It tastes pretty close to a menthol cigarette (from what I remember; they weren’t necessarily my thing back in the day). It’s enjoyable and feels like breathing a box of Altoids.
I also greatly enjoy the Java Jolt. I selected the “double shot” flavor strength on this one, for what it’s worth. And really — what goes better with coffee than cigarettes?
Yep, there is a Top-Shelf Bourbon. I also got this in the “double” flavor strength. I might argue with the “top shelf” qualifier, but it is unmistakable bourbon. It’s a little sweet for my bourbon-tastes (probably the carrier, similar to the tobacco flavor problems). If the VaporFi folks are listening and want to mix up a smoky, peaty scotch, I’d be more than willing to give it a try!
I must admit that I haven’t yet tried the Red Hot Cinnamon, but I have gotten a whiff of the juice. I have full expectations that I will enjoy this in the same way that I enjoy the menthol.
In summary: fake tobacco: bad; menthol and coffee: good; others: okay.
I am happy that I picked up both styles of hardware. I do like the sci-fi look of the larger Pro model, but will likely end up using the Express due to portability and spontaneity. I don’t think I’ll ever try a zero-nicotine fake-tobacco flavor of juice again. They were just too far off the mark. The other flavors were interesting enough that I’ll stick with them. I see a lot of coffee juice in my future. My main concern, now, is the shelf-life of the juices.
Unless someone can point me to further virgin vices, I think this concludes the series of posts. Chime in in the comments or over Twitter if you have ideas to continue the series, or if you have additional information to contribute to either of these topics.