Where is Vaping Popular?
The history of vaping may not be very long, but it’s nonetheless incredibly complex. Over the course of the last decade and change, the popularity of vaping has waxed and waned at dramatically different rates in different parts of the world, depending on how local governments and health coalitions chose to view the practice.
On one side of the issue, vaping proponents argue that if everyone who currently smokes were to switch to vaping, countless lives could be saved – as many as six million in the United States alone. On the other, opponents worry that accepting vapers’ choice to switch could lead to re-normalizing smoking after a decades-long campaign to stigmatize smokers, though these claims have been contested.
Let’s take a look at how these competing narratives have impacted the popularity of smoking over time.
The idea of replacing smoking with a similar, but less harmful practice has been around for nearly a century – the first patent for an electric cigarette dates back to 1927, though it took until the 1960s for a prototype device to ever be assembled. Those devices never went into mass production, and the idea of a smoking replacement languished until 2003 when Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, developed the world’s first commercial e-cigarette.
Lik’s device abandoned tobacco entirely in favor of a liquid nicotine extract that was heated by applying power from a battery to a coil of resistance wire. By 2007 the devices were available to curious would-be quitters nationwide.
It took a few years to work out the difficulties the early, underpowered, and often finicky devices presented. Still, many longtime smokers were astounded at their success in using the devices after previous failed quitting attempts, and by the time 2014 rolled around so many people were vaping that the Oxford Dictionary named the practice their word of the year.
In those early years, the vapor industry was exploding worldwide. World Health Organization estimates indicate that between 2007 and 2014, the number of vapers across the globe grew from 7 million to nearly 25 million.
Shenzhen, China, a southern city near the country’s Hong Kong border, became a global capital in the vapor industry. It still produces the majority of vaping hardware on the market today and is home to industry leaders like Smok, Kanger, and others.
In the Philippines, skilled artisans became known for crafting some of the finest early advanced vapor products, called “mechanical mods.” Vape shops sprang up across India, where smoking rates far outpace those of other countries to this day.
In the US and Europe, thousands tried their hand at mixing e-liquids. Many found they were so good at creating unique flavor blends they were able to successfully launch small businesses, and even more vape shops proliferated, often helmed by evangelistic ex-smokers enamored with the products that finally got them off of cigarettes after struggles that often spanned years.
All of this was happening, it should be noted, in a very lax regulatory environment. Governments didn’t know what to do about this whole “vaping” phenomenon, and opposition to the practice quickly mounted.
Opponents argued, validly, that little research existed on the long-term effects of vaping on the body, and that as-yet unknown dangers might become apparent years or even decades into the future. Early advocates said what they were inhaling was “just water vapor,” though such statements were far from accurate and would be used against them for years to come as downplaying the risks of a relatively unknown activity.
Others worried that teens might come to see vapor products as “cool,” as past generations did cigarettes, and that this would lead them to eventually begin vaping and then choose to switch to smoking. Though there was little evidence that this was happening, opponents then said that the availability of flavored vapor products would increase their appeal to youth
Later, technology advances would lead to the return of the small, sleek cigalike and a move away from bulky mod devices coupled with the introduction of nicotine salts, which allowed a vaper to consume nicotine at a rate many times greater than when using traditional e-liquids. These products, it seems, did appeal to minors at a rate far greater than older devices, which only added to the general vaping panic.
Across the world, vape bans came into vogue. India and the Philippines, once vaping hotbeds, banned the practice entirely. Europe took steps to limit the amount of nicotine in liquids, along with other more draconian measures. And in the US, vape bans have been the topic of loud debate and are slowly rolling across the country.
It’s Still Popular
Despite the current trying times for vaping, it remains a popular practice that’s only continuing to grow. From just 7 million vapers in 2011, there were an estimated 41 million in 2018, a nearly six-fold increase.
In the UK, where public health researchers have concluded that vaping is at least 95 percent safer than smoking, the government is actively recruiting smokers to instead take up vaping. In fact, brick-and-mortar vape shops are among the most popular types of new businesses opening in the country today.
Here in the US, an estimated 4.6% of adults are considered active vapers, meaning they’ve tried a vapor product at least once in the last month. Smoking rates, meanwhile, have fallen to record lows as vaping has gained popularity, despite a period of no significant decrease in smoking that lasted several years immediately before vaping became popular.
In some places, though, vaping is even more popular than others. Unsurprisingly, states that record the highest incidence of smoking, like Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Alabama, all found their way onto the top ten list of states where vaping is popular. Other, more progressive states like Colorado also found their way onto the list. And, despite being home to one of the harshest attempts to ban vaping, Ohio also merits a mention.
What we know for now is that even in an environment where scare tactics and attacks on vapers’ rights seem to be the order of the day, the number of smokers making the switch has continued to increase. We continue to believe that’s a good thing.